By David Fleshler, Sun Sentinel
The future of Florida’s largest native land mammal will be on the table Wednesday as the state wildlife commission votes whether to remove the Florida black bear from the state’s list of threatened species.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, will conduct its two-day meeting in Palm Beach Gardens, with the controversial question of the bear scheduled for the first day.
The commission’s staff recommends taking the bear off the list, saying bear populations have soared, most live on protected land and sufficient protections will remain to prevent the species’ decline. A ban on hunting, in place since 1994, will continue. But many environmentalists oppose the change, saying bear populations remain extremely vulnerable to loss of habitat to development.
No one disputes that bear populations have increased. They show up routinely in backyards in suburban Orlando. A bear from the western Everglades turned up repeatedly on the streets of Weston and bears are frequently hit by cars on the highways of Central Florida.
The proposal follows a detailed peer-reviewed study of the health of Florida’s bear population and the threats it faces.
“The biological review team concluded that the best available scientific information indicates that the bear is not at a high risk of extinction in Florida and does not meet any state criteria for listing as a threatened species,” states a presentation to be made to the commission on Wednesday.
The state’s bear population exceeds 3,000, the highest total in about a century and well up from the 300 or so estimated to live in the state in the early 1970s. Most bears live in national forests or other protected lands, such as South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, a one-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale.
And the state’s biologists say the most important thing is that a management plan for the bear will be approved along with the vote to remove the bear from the list. The plan is intended to keep healthy bear populations stable, reduce incidents of bears breaking into garbage cans and houses, and create corridors to connect isolated bear populations to larger ones.
But many environmentalists still want the bear kept on the threatened species list, saying isolated bear populations remain vulnerable and that land development is sure to gallop forward once the economy recovers, putting bear habitat in danger. Although bear numbers are up overall, smaller populations, such as those along the Gulf coast, remain genetically isolated and in danger of disappearing, they said.
“Even though the black bear is doing better, it’s not doing well,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “The population is up because it was listed and hunting was banned. You still have a relatively small population facing losses of habitat. The long-term prognosis for the bear is more roads, more habitat fragmentation, more roadkill and more loss of habitat as rural Florida gets developed.”
The commission meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the PGA National Resort, 400 Avenue of the Champions, Palm Beach Gardens. The bear vote is the fifth item on the agenda.