By Warren Richey The Christian
Jan. 13ó When
you think of Florida wildlife, several animals immediately come to mind:
alligators, manatees, and even flamingos, which actually are quite rare
in the stateís wild.
But very few people, other than
conservationists, beekeepers, and berry farmers, are aware of the
Florida black bear.
Two centuries ago, as many as 12,000
black bears roamed Floridaís swamps and pine forests. Today, there may
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says
todayís bear population is not too bad, all things considered. The
federal agency declined recently to include the bear on the nationís
Endangered Species List, saying there were more than enough bears in
Floridaís four big national forests to sustain the species.
A Particularly Worrisome Situation
Conservationists counter that while some
bear populations may be stable, other smaller groups outside the
protected national forests are imperiled by booming real estate
development. Michael Bentzien, a Fish and Wildlife official in Florida,
acknowledges as much. "The small bear populations are generally in
parts of Florida with large development. For some of them, we would
likely see them disappearing in the near future," he says.
Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based
conservation group, is threatening to sue the Fish and
Wildlife Service in a move to force it to place
the animal on the list of protected animals.
"The bear is a wide-ranging species.
Without prompt action to conserve its habitat its long-term prospects
for survival are dim," says Robert Dewey of Defenders of Wildlife.
"Development is eating away at bear habitat. We have to act
Just Give Me Some Space
Black bears tend to be shy and reclusive.
And they like their space. An adult male bear needs 42,000 acres of
roaming room, while a female needs about 7,000 acres. By some estimates, forested land in
Florida ó prime bear habitat ó
is disappearing at a rate of 200,000 acres a year. And with an
estimated 5,000 new human residents arriving every day, the prospects
for maintaining large tracts of pristine, bear-friendly forest are dim.
Federal officials acknowledge that
Florida habitat is itself endangered, but they say the purpose of the
Endangered Species Act ó which includes the
protected species list is to help the most threatened animals. The
bottom line, says Mr. Bentzien, is that other animals were in more
desperate need of federal intervention than the black bear. "In the
end, it just didnít make the cut," he explains.
Bears Win the
In the public-relations arena, the bear
is a clear winner. Soon, it will soon have its own license plate in
Florida. "A bear would be a pretty good politician ó
I canít think of any group that doesnít like bears,"
says Terry Gilbert, a bear specialist with the Florida Game Commission.
"Even the beekeepers like bears [but] they just donít want them
tearing their hives up."
David Maehr, a professor at the
University of Kentucky, has spent years in the field studying the bear.
He says while the Fish and Wildlife Service focuses on bear population
numbers, it fails to consider the importance of interaction among
dispersed bear communities across the state.
He notes that interaction among bear
populations helps keep the overall population stable by compensating for
any local disruptions like fires, floods, or hurricanes that might
otherwise wipe out all bears in a particular region.
Conservationists stress their campaign
isnít just a matter of making Florida safe for the black bear. Because
of the animalís status as a so-called "flagship" species,
protecting its habitat would also preserve thousands of other animals
and plants that live in the same areas.
Laurie Macdonald, who runs the Habitat
for Bears campaign in
Florida, says if the bears were designated as a threatened species, it
would make it much more difficult for developers to pave over forested
land. She hopes people will see "that what you do for the bear
helps all of us."
Copyright 1999 The Christian Science Monitor.
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,
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