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County erects signs alerting drivers to bears

The signs are to make area drivers, longtime residents and newcomers, more aware that bears may show up on roadways.

By MARY SPICUZZA
Published June 17, 2005


Caution - bear crossing.

A new batch of bright yellow signs warning motorists of black bears have been cropping up around western Hernando County.

The Hernando County Commission requested the new signs, which were installed this week, after local environmental activist Linda Prescott spoke to them about a rash of bear-car collisions in the Hernando Beach area.

"Many new residents have moved into the area and are unaware of the bears and their behavior," Prescott said.

She hopes greater awareness will encourage motorists to drive slower, watch out for bears and prevent more accidents on the road.

For example, a black bear was struck by a car driving on Osowaw Boulevard in mid May. The animal was thrown more than 50 feet, and the car was heavily damaged, Prescott said.

The motorists were okay, and the bear seems to have survived as well.

"I do not know the status of the bear, but I was told it was a good sign that he was able to get up and go into the preserve," Prescott said.

Bears are no strangers to the Hernando County landscape. For years, Florida's smallest black bear population has made the county's coastal area its home.

Wildlife experts believe there are about 20 black bears that range from Crystal River south to the northern Pasco County line. One of their main crossings is Osowaw Boulevard.

These bears gained greater notoriety because of a University of Kentucky professor, David Maehr, who led a study examining how this tiny group has survived despite development and habitat fragmentation.

"They stay well away from U.S. 19 and they don't get into Dumpsters at McDonald's or Burger King," Maehr told the Times in 2002. "They live right next to new developments. They come right up against those things and don't get into trouble."

However, even Hernando's street smart bears occasionally run into trouble on the roads.

In July 2003, a 250-pound male bear was struck and killed near the Wal-Mart on Osowaw Boulevard. A pair of bear cubs met a similar fate near West Hernando Christian School in September 2001. After the cubs were killed by a hit-and-run driver on Osowaw, their mother was heard wailing for them in the woods north of the road.

"My feeling is still, let's try to protect the ones that are here," Prescott said.

She said making motorists more aware is a far better solution than trying to relocate the bears.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agrees.

"The relocated bears generally will suffer the wrath of resident bears and may stress the established social structure," the commission's Living With the Florida Black Bear states. "Also, bears are subject to increased mortality as they likely will attempt to return to their former home range (i.e., crossing highways)."

The publication warns against approaching, feeding, chasing or attempting to attract black bears. For years, they've been urging residents to "Be Bear Aware," conservation commission spokesman Gary Morse said.

"Their habitat has dwindled, and it's forced the bears to cross roads to get their supplies," Morse said. "We crowd these animals out."

Morse said there are still five basic populations throughout the state.

In Hernando County, wildlife advocates like Prescott are hoping the new crop of street signs will prevent the state's smallest bear population from getting any smaller.

There are now 10 new bear crossing signs, including signs on Shoal Line Boulevard, Cortez Boulevard west of U.S. 19 (County Road 550) and Osowaw.

"We had some existing ones out there that were kind of in need of replacement," county traffic field supervisor David Bland said. "There were a few old ones out there. And they have been taken from time to time."

Prescott said she is thrilled with the signs, although she worries new development will further threaten black bear habitat.

"I know I am fighting a losing battle," Prescott said. "But one I can't seem in good conscience to give up."

Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzza@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

[Last modified June 17, 2005, 00:34:18]


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