I have studied the Florida black bear and worked on conservation plans for more than 20 years, and it is from this perspective that I strongly disagree with this month's vote by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove it from the state list of threatened species.
The decision makes two fundamental errors:
• It treats all Florida black bears as if they were one population — they're not. Some pockets are in better and some are in far worse shape than others.
• It concludes that a rising population of bears means that they are no longer threatened. That assumption, too, is wrong and is based on a flawed interpretation of bear reproductive trends.
The Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is a subspecies of black bear. There are four larger populations — Big Cypress, Osceola, Ocala, Apalachicola — and four smaller populations — Chassahowitzka, Highlands-Glades, Eglin and St. Johns — though some lump the St. Johns population with the Ocala population. Science-based projections predict widespread bear habitat loss and fragmentation in the decades ahead, meaning de-listing would likely be catastrophic, possibly fatal, for those four smaller populations.
Bears are very slow reproducers, and their population growth rate characteristically lags behind even significant reductions in mortality. So while it is true that most Florida black bear populations — except for Chassahowitzka — appear to be gradually increasing, the question is, Why? It's not because their habitat increased, but simply because they were no longer being hunted to death — after all, they were protected as a threatened species.
In the last two decades, Florida's human population has grown by more than 6 million. That has resulted in major habitat loss for many species, including bears, even while Florida's bear population has been increasing. In other words, more bears are sharing a shrinking space. This current increase in bear population simply will not continue as the expanding urban and suburban footprint in Florida cuts down and fragments their habitat.
I have worked on habitat delineation, conservation plans and wildlife corridors for the Florida black bear, Florida panther and many other species of conservation interest. I have also worked under contract for the FWC to develop habitat and landscape management guidelines and to assess statewide Florida black bear habitat using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as part of the Strategic Habitat Conservation Area analysis completed in 2009. From this vantage point, I know the most important factor for determining listing status is this ongoing projected habitat loss and fragmentation. This includes the FWC's own prediction that 2.3 million acres of bear habitat will be destroyed given trends and projections in the report "Wildlife 2060."
In its 2009 report, "Habitat Conservation Needs in Florida," the FWC agrees that a trend of significant bear habitat loss and fragmentation is occurring and is projected to continue so that bear populations will become smaller and isolated from one another by urban areas. Therefore, if the Florida black bear is de-listed, it will be based on a refusal to address a legitimate listing criterion regarding the present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range.
Local, regional and state governments are currently approving future developments that will result in massive losses of currently occupied bear habitat. Recently approved large-scale bear habitat loss include:
(1) The SunWest Development of Regional Impact (DRI) in Pasco County: This development would significantly truncate the range of the Chassahowitzka bear population, which is currently the smallest and the most threatened by continued habitat loss and fragmentation.
(2) The approval of two DRIs in Flagler and St. Johns counties that would result in the destruction of approximately 25,000 acres of currently occupied bear habitat.
(3) The Farmton comprehensive plan amendments in Volusia and Brevard counties that would result in the loss of at least 20,000 acres of currently occupied bear habitat.
This trend in habitat loss will likely be significantly exacerbated by the recent deregulation of state growth management and the Development of Regional Impacts process, by weakening environmental protection, and by defunding the Florida Forever conservation land acquisition program and the water management districts.
These trends indicate that the appropriately conservative approach is to not delist the Florida black bear as pressure on its habitat will significantly increase when local governments begin to approve more development with little to no state oversight and the state and water management districts protect less land through conservation land acquisition and easement programs like Florida Forever.
This new delisting rule requires that a statewide management plan be in place before delisting a species can be finalized. However, I am concerned that the FWC is treating the development of a management plan as a panacea that will somehow ensure that there are not unacceptable losses of bear habitat in the future despite the clear trends indicating the opposite.
Given the current regulatory and land conservation funding environment, there are no guarantees that a management plan will result in any significant actions to safeguard bear habitat currently on private lands, or defend protected bear habitat from the possibility of significant "surplusing" of conservation lands for development. Management plans are a good idea for all species of conservation interest, but experience shows that management plans often sit on a shelf, while local land use and other politics dictate what actually happens on the ground. Having bears as a state-listed species might positively affect these decisions, whereas a management plan for a species that has been de-listed likely will not.
Even if the Florida black bear is delisted overall, the smaller Florida black bear populations should remain on the list — they are all highly imperiled. Otherwise, they will face the likely threat of a mentality or justification among local and state planners that since the Florida black bear is doing just fine (after all, it has been delisted) there is no need for any special effort to protect or increase the habitat base for these smaller populations.
The smaller bear populations also have a role in maintaining and restoring genetic links between all of the Florida black bear populations, and especially the Highlands-Glades and Eglin populations. Recent studies at the University of Florida and by FWC indicate that all of Florida's black bear populations, though once one large population, have recently been genetically isolated to the extent that their gene pools have diverged. So restoring functional genetic linkages, or maintaining recently restored linkages, through protection of land that can serve as wildlife corridors between populations is an important goal for managing the health of all bear populations. For example, the Highlands-Glades bear population occupies a keystone area for providing the only potential functional linkage between bears in South Florida (the Big Cypress population) and all other bear populations further north. Since 2003, empirical studies on the Highlands-Glades bear population, led by Dr. Dave Maehr and Dr. John Cox at the University of Kentucky with primary research staff including graduate students Wade Ulrey and Joe Guthrie, indicate the conservation significance of the Highlands-Glades bear population for conserving and restoring functionally connected habitat for bears, panthers and other species.
Their Highlands-Glades bear population research, which uses GPS-based telemetry, has indicated key areas used by bears as habitat and corridors connecting core habitats throughout a large part of south-central Florida. Their results include the travels of M34, a male bear born near Sebring that ranged widely through south-central Florida for more than 450 miles, with the furthest points north (near I-4 and the town of Celebration) and south (Babcock Ranch) spanning a distance of 105 miles.
Bear M34 and other bears have indicated that south-central Florida still exists in a condition that will allow species like bears, panthers and many others to move effectively through these landscapes to integrate populations and potentially recolonize former habitat. But delisting of the Florida black bear will make it much more difficult to protect bear habitat and corridors, which could result in the loss of at least all of the small bear populations as well as other species that depend on habitat currently occupied by bears.
The argument for delisting the Florida black bear is a significantly flawed and shortsighted rationale for making a threatened species easier to "manage." Instead, we need to keep the Florida black bear on the list, and for the FWC to work with various partners to foster bear-smart human communities that will significantly reduce the impact of people on bears, while also working with private landowners and local governments on incentives and revitalized conservation land programs to protect strategic and other important habitat for bears.
This approach is essential to ensure that all of Florida's black bear populations are conserved while protecting and restoring landscapes that many of our native wildlife species need to survive.
Tom Hoctor directs the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida.