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Guest column| David S. Maehr

Guest column: Florida black bears' survival depends on large acres of forest

Since the early 1800s, the Florida black bear has lost 83 percent of its range. Since 1830, human numbers in the state increased to more than 18-million from about 35,000.

The black bear is a threatened species in the state with a tiny population of perhaps 20 living just north of Tampa. Here, in the Greater Chassahowitzka Ecosystem, or GCE, the fates of individual bears will determine whether this population survives or disappears in the face of burgeoning human numbers — nearly half a million in Pasco County alone.

My graduate students and I studied these bears from 1997 to 2002 and concluded that the population could be saved if conservation actions occurred quickly. Sadly, despite land acquisition and management by several state agencies, human encroachment into the bear's last forested haunts in the region outpace conservation actions.

The SunWest Harbourtowne Development of Regional Impact is on track to eliminate and isolate 500 acres of strategically located black bear habitat in northwest Pasco County. The developers acknowledge that bears were documented in the area during our study, but they could not find any. This is not surprising given that we spent five years scouring the woods from Weeki Wachee to Aripeka, while SunWest consultants spent a handful of hours in 29 days conducting surveys for a variety of species in one area.

We captured and radio-collared 24 bears in the region, three of which used forests within the proposed development. Individual black bears can use tens of thousands of acres on an annual basis, and may use large portions of their home ranges for only days at a time. As food resources change, bears move to find the ripest berries and acorns. I am not surprised at their failure to find signs of bear.

As conservation scientists, we conduct our studies so that land management decisions can be made on behalf of Florida's disappearing wildlife. We then publish our results in peer-reviewed journals. If we make our data available to the public, we hope it is used wisely. This is why it is disturbing that the developers' application (which ignores our papers and most of the theses on GCE bears) suggests that forests in the area do not "conform to the norm when reviewing the bear telemetry data'' provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

It then describes a salt marsh corridor that bears are unlikely to use, and preserved forests surrounded by fairways and housing. GCE bears, like bears everywhere in Florida, require intact forests that they can access and live in. This project will eliminate usable forest. After studying Florida bears since 1980, it is clear to me that the strongest commonality among bear populations is that each needs forest. Big Cypress bears use mangrove forests, among others. In Apalachicola they use titi swamps. These forest communities do not occur anywhere else in the state. Can we thus assume that they do not conform to some average bear model? Stretching the truth in this way destroys bear habitat.

Even more disturbing is the impact statement's acknowledgment that three radio-collared bears used the area in question as recently as 2002, but that two of them are now dead. It may be a surprise to the developers' consultants, but black bears do not live forever (nor in golf courses). In fact, just as a human family moves out of a house and another moves in, bear home ranges are recycled over time and space across generations. This is one of the curses of radio telemetry data: if none exist for a particular place it is tempting to conclude that a species of interest is not there even when such studies examine only a portion of the entire population.

Another curse is that once the radio collars are silent, an uninformed person can conclude that there is nothing there at all: out of sight, out of mind. The point of examining a sample population is to generalize about the ecology of an organism and its habitat. We did this five years ago and identified the areas that would ensure a future for the bears of Aripeka and Weeki Wachee. SunWest plans to take this future away. Perhaps we need to study GCE bears once again to prove that they are there.

Today, the imperiled bears of GCE are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. It's not as if they can sprout flippers and escape into the Gulf of Mexico. Nor can they raise their voices to a benevolent Horton who will save their dust speck of a world from the skeptics. It would be one thing if this bear population had already gone extinct — simply one less reason to deny another luxury development with golf course and deep-water marina. But the bears are there.

Twenty nine days of foot surveys and misleading interpretations of painstakingly collected data are insufficient justification for driving another bear population to extinction in exchange for brick-and-mortar paradise. Care for the facts — not the fairy tale story? If so, please call the scientists who did the work and who know the wildlife and its landscape; not the fiction writers who pave their way with smoke and mirrors.

David S. Maehr is professor of conservation biology at the University of Kentucky's Department of Forestry. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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Guest column: Florida black bears' survival depends on large acres of forest 04/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 2:58pm]
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