December 31, Critical Deadline: Defenders and Leading Scientists Urge FWS To Protect Florida Bear Under ESA

(12/01/1998) - Conservationists and former government scientists are warning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that timely protection of the Florida black bear is crucial for its survival and that it must be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The warning comes in a letter sent by Defenders of Wildlife and the Florida Sierra Club along with support letters from former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologists James Cox and David Maehr. Under a 1992 legal settlement, FWS must decide by December 31, whether or not to propose listing of the Florida black bear under the ESA.

"The December 31 deadline is a key juncture in the long conservation battle relating to the imperiled Florida bear," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said today. "The scientific evidence in support of federal protection for the bear is overwhelming. The time has come for the Fish and Wildlife Service to take immediate, decisive action to help the bear change course."

Since 1990, conservationists have called for listing this subspecies (Ursus americanus floridanus) as threatened or endangered under the ESA, but the Florida black bear still remains only a candidate for listing -- a status which affords it no federal protection from multiple threats that have cut its numbers from as many as 12,000 to approximately 1,500.

"To some Floridians, the Florida black bear is known only through recent news reports about a mother bear killed crossing a road north of Orlando on November 13 and her cub killed in the same way on November 14 while searching for her, " Defenders of Wildlife Florida Representative Laurie Macdonald says. "Many other Florida residents have been working for years, however, to protect the bear. More than 1,200 citizens are currently active in our Habitat for Bears Campaign. Although Florida black bear hunting was outlawed by the State in 1993, habitat destruction and road kills continue to take a heavy toll."

The December 31 deadline for proposing protection of the Florida black bear is based on a 1992 legal settlement between conservation groups, led by Fund for Animals and Defenders of Wildlife, and the FWS. That year FWS agreed to propose for listing more than 440 wildlife species, including Florida bears, by September 30, 1996. The bear, however, was neglected along with hundreds of other species because of the listings moratorium imposed by Congress in 1994.

In 1992, FWS said listing of the bear was "warranted but precluded" under the ESA, meaning that listing would be justified by the extreme threats to the subspecies and its habitat but precluded by the more pressing needs of other species on the long candidate list.

Since then, scientists have issued a number of reports demonstrating that the threats to the Florida black bear are extremely pressing. In 1994 the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission completed a comprehensive wildlife habitat assessment for the entire state. This assessment resulted in the comprehensive report entitled "Closing Gaps in Florida's Wildlife Habitat Conservation System," which graphically depicts the bear's shrinking habitat base and provides ample scientific evidence of an imminent threat.

"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," Macdonald says. "The plight of the bear largely boils down to habitat, and more precisely the lack thereof."

Two biologists who formerly worked for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission have also sent statements on the urgency of the bear's plight to FWS. Biologist David Maehr, who is familiar with the habitat needs of the bear through his extensive field research, and James Cox, principal author of the commission's 1994 report, both joined Defenders in calling for immediate listing action.

Defenders' 16-page statement to FWS Director Jamie Clark noted how the expansion of human development and the increasing number of roads and traffic that run through bear habitat are contributors to the increased movement and exposure of bears. Roads and their continued expansion through bear habitat pose a major threat to the Florida black bear. The Ocala population is particularly jeapordized by plans to widen State Road 40 (SR40), which runs through the middle of the Ocala National Forest.

While habitat destruction eats away at bear habitat and leads to population reductions, roadkill is 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. Yesterday, state wildlife officials reported that Florida bear road kills surpassed last years' all-time high of 74 -- most likely more than 80 bears out of the estimated population of 1,500 will be killed in 1998.

Defenders notes that FWS should not rely on a wish list of land purchases in fulfilling its obligation to conserve a threatened species. "By listing the bear, other species will also benefit," Schlickeisen explains. "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."

The Defenders letter and the two supporting letters by James Cox and David Maehr are available upon request. Contact Jesal Mehta (202) 682-9400 x265.



Jesal Mehta, 202-682-9400 x265 (Media)
Laurie Macdonals, 727-821-9585