Highways threaten bears

Published: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 12:21 a.m.

This is in response to The Sun's editorial on the Florida black bear (Jan. 21). Bears may be on the rebound in parts of Florida, but population declines near quickly urbanizing areas threaten to wipe out populations in Highlands County, Duval County and the coastal forests of Hernando and Citrus counties.

I spent part of 14 years studying some of the large bear populations in Florida as a research biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (they have a new name now), and it is clear that a hunting moratorium has allowed the once beleaguered Osceola National Forest population to recover.

In the last five years while at the University of Kentucky, I have studied what is likely the smallest bear population in the world - the 20 or fewer living between Weeki Wachee and Crystal River - and all indications are that it has few prospects for survival.

Surrounded on three sides by highways, housing and businesses, and the fourth by the Gulf of Mexico, these bears have altered their home ranges and activity patterns to avoid humans.

They have even given up perfectly good habitat because of the noises associated with highway traffic. Still, they must move to find food and mates, and then they are killed by cars or they are shot by criminals because they eat bait intended for deer.

But even this is not the real problem. There are simply too many people living in a landscape that is increasingly fragmented by our activities.

Without connections to other bears in other forests, small populations are doomed to extinction unless we reverse the cause of the problem.

For Florida to maintain the wilderness qualities and ecological services offered by its largest omnivore, people must resist to pave roads everywhere. Such infrastructure does not equate to a better quality of life for humans or bears.

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