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Bears are here, roaming in peril

Joe Johnson likes to compare Hernando County's black bear population to native Floridians.

"They're both endangered," said Johnson, a wildlife officer for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Johnson spoke to about 50 members of the citizen group Hernando Environmental Land Protectors (HELP) on Thursday night.He explained why he is concerned about local black bears.

"You are living right in the middle of one of the areas that has an active bear herd," Johnson told the audience. "The highway you live along has been nicknamed "Bear Alley.' "

The alley Johnson referred to _ known also as U.S. 19 and its surrounding roads, such as Shoal Line Boulevard _ has been the site of 28 bear-car accidents since 1978, Johnson said. Only eight of those bears survived.

The most recent victim, a cub nicknamed "Boo-Bear," is one of the few success stories from a county where Johnson estimates that 20 to 30 black bears still roam, about half the number of a dozen years ago.

Boo-Bear was struck by a car Jan. 11 as she tried to follow her mother across Shoal Line Boulevard in Hernando Beach, and she seemed on the brink of death. Care by local animal activist Judy Blumel, two Pasco County veterinarians and the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa gave Boo-Bear another chance.

She was released Jan. 24 near the site of the accident, and Johnson said the cub should be doing fine.

"There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Boo-Bear is with her mother right now," Johnson said. For the other bears that haven't been so lucky, Johnson and several audience members said they hope people will learn more about the animals whose homes are being increasingly invaded by people.

"We need to educate people on the plight of the wildlife in the state," said G. Ray Heddleson of the local Sierra Club. "The problem can only get worse if we don't educate the people."

Johnson said people should contact local elected officials about their concerns for wildlife, and notify the game and fish commission of any possible violations of state wildlife laws.

"We need eyes and ears all over this county," said Johnson, who said he also worries about the threatened gopher tortoise population and increasingly congested waterways. "Personally, I have the old adage in my mind, "We the people.' "

To report violations, people can notify the game and fish commission at (800) 282-8002. That number is for reporting only. Anyone interested in educational literature or programs concerning the state's wildlife and natural resources can call Johnson in Lakeland at (813) 648-3200.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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