Florida has its own subspecies of black bear: ursus americanus floridus. It once lived all over the state, but we have hemmed it into a few remaining areas, six or eight depending on how you count.
The smallest of these populations roams a corridor from Citrus County down to just south of the Hernando-Pasco county line. It is known as the Chassahowitzka black bear.
The last detailed study of the Chassahowitzka bear ended in 2002. At the time, experts thought there might not be more than 20. No one really knows what has happened since then, which made it all the more poignant when a pair of cubs was killed by a car a few years ago.
On Tuesday, the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District will vote on trading a 90-acre piece of land it owns in northwest Pasco County to a developer.
The trouble with this swap, say critics, is it will sever the southern end of the bear corridor, isolating something like 700 to 1,000 acres.
"It would almost certainly cut off the remaining bear habitat to the south," says Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida.
Hoctor says we can't know what last straw will cause such a small population to "wink out." Opponents include the Defenders of Wildlife, the Gulf Coast Conservancy and the Gulf Restoration Network and Audubon of Florida.
Now, it should be stressed that the water district is not just twirling its mustache with glee and saying, "Ha ha! Let's kill Gentle Ben!" There are tradeoffs and benefits.
The district gets 396 nearby coastal acres in return from the developer, SunWest, and the donation of another 849 acres after that. This land, too, is habitat for many species.
Eric Sutton is the water district's land resources director. He agrees there is "no argument whatsoever" that the development will have some effect on the southern end of the bear corridor.
But he also says that must be balanced against the total benefits. And since SunWest would develop the usable parts of the other parcels anyway, the district is making the best deal it can.
The Florida black bear ranges in size from 150-200 pounds to 300 pounds or more Bears mostly eat a plant diet — nuts, seeds, fruits and such — but are not above a stray fish carcass or carrion. They shy away from us, but not our garbage.
In both diet and habitat, they make do.
I spent a pleasant half-day knocking around the 90 acres to be traded, bought with the help of the Florida Forever program. The terrain ranges from sandy hills and pine uplands to low wetlands. To the west, the land levels off into broad, grassy marshes before meeting the gulf.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would save all of it. The district board does not have that option. If it makes this swap, it gambles that it is not dealing a decisive blow to the most fragile bear population in Florida — Hoctor says maybe in North America. I understand the district's reasoning and do not think it is acting wildly or unthinkingly. But I would not take the deal.
The governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the district's headquarters, 2379 Broad Street (U.S. 41) in Brooksville. The district's number is (800) 423-1476. Its Web site is www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.