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Bears are springing into action

One scientific theory has it that Florida black bears, like their northern counterparts, hibernate through the winter.

"The other is that they'll den up for a couple of days and then go out and wander for a little bit," said Mary Barnwell of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"That's controversial."

Whether Florida bears are emerging from slumber or just a prolonged lethargy, scientists do know that this is the season when they again become active.

From now through December, they will forage for acorns and other favorite foods, mate and raise cubs. The Gulf Coast Conservancy in Aripeka is again asking drivers to be more careful when on roads that run through bear habitat along the Nature Coast, especially in western Hernando County, where two cubs were killed in accidents last year.

"The main danger points are (County Road) 550, Shoal Line (Boulevard) and Osowaw (Boulevard)," all west of U.S. 19 in Hernando, said Niki Everitt, coordinator of the conservancy's Bear Hotline.

Everitt said at least two 1-year-old cubs were reported in that area late last year. "And the new cubs are really fragile," she said.

She asked that anyone who sees a bear call the hot line at (352) 596-4157. The conservancy has recorded 60 sightings in the past two years, she said.

The hot line gives scientists one way of tracking bear activity in western Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties. They are working on ways to develop specific information and, they hope, to answer basic questions such as: What do bears do in the winter?

Four agencies _ Swiftmud, the state Division of Forestry, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service _ formed the Chassahowitzka Interagency Black Bear Working Group in August 1995.

Generally, the idea is to establish a consistent policy to protect bears, or, according to Barnwell, "a more holistic management for black bears." Group representatives have discussed the effect of controlled burns on the bear population, the need for better signs to warn motorists and land acquisition that might expand bear habitat.

The bear population in the three counties is centered in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near the Citrus-Hernando line, but the habitat extends south through western Hernando and into northern Pasco.

The bear-protection group's first major project will be to track bears in the area.

Last year, the group received $10,000 from the federal government, which allowed it to buy 11 collars as well as tracking equipment. It needs an additional $85,000 to finish the project, much of which will go to a private consultant to coordinate and write the study.

Fritz Musselman, Swiftmud's director of land resources, plans to request that his agency pay for some of the work. Barnwell has also pursued private grants.

Musselman said he hopes the other three agencies in the group "will ante up as well."

At any rate, he said, he is confident the project will at least receive partial funding, partly because the information collected will not be confined to bear habitat.

For example, Barnwell said, it is known that old hollowed-out cypress trees are among bears' favorite dens. So aerial surveys _ a planned part of the bear tracking effort _ will map the boundaries of old-growth cypress as it looks for ideal bear habitat.

Ground surveys will collect information about other threatened species.

"There's a tremendous amount of information we could gather through this," Barnwell said.

But the main focus will be bears. Scientists now lack even basic information on Florida bears, and specifically on groups of bears such as the ones based in the Chassahowitzka area, which are threatened by development.

They do not know for sure whether the bears are most active during the day or at night. They do not even know how many bears there are.

A Game and Fresh Water Fish study estimated that the Chassahowitzka population may be as small as 20 bears. Barnwell said, that, based partly on information gathered in a most unfortunate way, the figure could well be an underestimation.

"The rate of road kill seems awfully high for a population of less than 20," Barnwell said.