Federal wildlife officials concede that the Florida black bear should be listed as a threatened species but say they have higher priorities. Environmentalists this week called the position a "prescription for extinction."
Only 1,000 Florida black bears were found in the state in 1962 and The Fund For Animals, which filed a petition last year asking for their protection, estimates numbers may have fallen to 400.
But the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a June 6 recommendation being reviewed in Washington said that designating the subspecies as threatened, while desirable, would have to wait.
Protection is "warranted, but precluded by work on other species having higher priority," said David Allen, the agency's acting Southeast regional director in Atlanta.
The annual surveys of bears killed by hunters and in road accidents do not show signs of a population decline, the agency said.
The agency said there was no reason to curb legal bear hunts in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
That position was called shortsighted by Fund representatives.
"It's an inevitable slide to extinction," spokesman Wayne Pacelle said Wednesday. "The time to save the bear is now, and this finding doesn't change anything _ it's a prescription for extinction."
He said that, as a minimum, hunting should be stopped. Game officials in Florida, which lists the bear on its state threatened list but still allows it to be hunted, report 60 bears were killed legally in the 1989-90 hunting season, along with unknown numbers killed in accidents or by poachers.
Placing the Florida black bear on the threatened list would not only stop hunting, it would preserve the habitat of other species living in the same area, Pacelle said. Tom Turnipseed, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife in Atlanta, said fears about the bear are unwarranted. He said that much of the population lives in already protected areas such as the Okefenokee Swamp or Osceola National Forest.
He said Washington officials are expected to rule on the regional office's recommendation within a month and publish it in the federal register.