Florida black bear denied federal protection
December 8, 1998
By Environmental News Network staff
"A status review estimated the sustainable population at 1,600 to 3,000 bears covering much of the species' historical range," said Sam D. Hamilton, southeast regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Therefore, we have made a new finding that listing the bear as endangered or threatened is not warranted at this time."
In 1992, the federal agency said that listing the Florida black bear was "warranted but precluded" under the Endangered Species Act, meaning that although the bear ought to be listed, the needs of other species on the long candidate list took precedent over the bear.
Subsequently, as part of a legal agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Fund for Animals, the federal agency agreed to resolve the conservation status of the Florida black bear by Dec. 31.
"The FWS appears to have ignored the escalation in habitat threats and road mortality of bears and even writes off several populations like the Chassahowitza," said Mike Senatore, wildlife counsel at Defenders of Wildlife. "There is absolutely no reason legally or scientifically not to list the bear."
Indeed, the federal agency has acknowledged that certain bear populations it views as being "small" may be lost in the future due to human population growth. However, it believes that the more significant populations are stable.
"The Florida black bear has secure areas of habitat comparable to the habitat of other populations of black bears in the Southeast," said Hamilton. "Based on the population figures and the future land management activities anticipated in these four areas, we believe the bear's population will be stable in the foreseeable future."
The Fish and Wildlife Service's status review found stable populations of Florida black bears in Apalachicola National Forest, Okefenokoee National Wildlife Refuge, Oscola National Forest and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Yet, a 1994 report conducted by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission found that the Florida black bear was threatened by habitat loss.
"Because of a lack of action by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the bear still faces the same problems that were depicted in this report four years ago," said Defenders of Wildlife Florida representative Laurie MacDonald. "The plight of the bear largely boils down to habitat, and more precisely the lack thereof."
Since the Florida black bear prefers habitat away from human activities, the species primarily occurs on public conservation lands such as national forests and national wildlife refuges.
The Florida black bear is a subspecies of the American black bear and is found in Florida and the coastal plain areas of Alabama and Georgia. It tends to occupy forested areas and feeds on plant foods such as berries and acorns.
While habitat loss due to human development is a threat to the species, environmentalists cite deadly run ins with motor vehicles as a direct cause of death for Florida bears.
Vehicles kill bears outright, and roads and traffic act as barriers to the animals' attempts to reach resources they need to survive, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
"The rate of increase in bears could not possibly be as great as the rate increases in road mortality," said MacDonald.
On Nov. 30, state wildlife officials reported that Florida bear roadkills surpassed last year's all-time high of 74 and the number is estimated to be more than 80 by the year's end.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that collisions with automobiles continue to be a problem but does not believe that these accidents threaten the long-term survival of the four stable bear populations.
Nevertheless, Defenders of Wildlife believes that federal protection for the Florida black bear would benefit not only the bear, but a host of other endangered species.
"Conservation efforts to protect the bear from further decline and to recover remaining unoccupied habitat will contribute tremendously to the survival of several other listed and declining species that live within the bear's range," said Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders of Wildlife president.
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