Bears kept off list

Florida black bear not `threatened' in U.S.

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 12:24 a.m.

OCALA- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced Wednesday they will not place the Florida black bear on the national threatened species list, reaffirming a 1998 decision that was challenged by numerous wildlife conservation organizations.

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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission veterinarian Mark Cunningham cradles a cub in his hands as an assistant measures it in this April file photo.

Sun file photo

Despite the ruling, the Florida black bear remains on a state list of threatened species, which means the animal and its habitat are being closely monitored and studied, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.

Wednesday's decision came nearly two years after a U.S. District Court ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately justify its 1998 decision not to include the Florida black bear on the list of threatened animals.

Chuck Underwood, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, said Wednesday that biologists carefully re-examined the Florida black bear population and determined the animal did not meet the guidelines for a threatened species.

Underwood said the decision was made largely because there are healthy bear populations, ranging between 1,600 and 3,000, in several secure habits in the state, including the Ocala National Forest.

"Biologists analyzed the data to make sure they did not overlook something," Underwood said. "The end result was it was determined the Florida black bear did not qualify for the list and therefore the earlier decision was reaffirmed."

Laurie Macdonald, Florida's director for The Defenders of Wildlife, said she was disappointed in the decision. Placing the Florida black bear on the federal threatened list would have brought more attention and funding for the animal, she said.

The Defenders of Wildlife were among numerous agencies challenging the 1998 decision.

The bears live in the Apalachicola National Forest, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Osceola National Forest and the Ocala National Forest. They also live in the Big Cypress National Reserve.

A subspecies of the American black bear, the Florida black bear is generally found in forested areas and eats mostly plants, acorns and berries. Macdonald said a federal threatened species designation could have helped stop the development of its habitat.

"The habitat of the Florida black bear continues to shrink," Macdonald said.

Macdonald said state officials are not doing enough to protect the habitat, which is being destroyed to build homes, businesses and roads.

Lt. Joy Hill, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said that, based on bear sightings and those killed along roadways, there is some indication the Florida black bear population is rising.

"We do not have hard evidence to show the population is increasing or decreasing, so I can say there are no plans to change the designation," Hill said. "We are currently conducting studies to determine the population."

Hill said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision will not impact the state's designation.

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