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U.S. must reconsider black bear protection

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 18, 2001

A U.S. District Court judge in Washington has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to reject the Florida black bear from being added to its list of endangered species and ordered the agency last week to reconsider.

"Without rules that help black bears and their habitat, we will continue to wipe out the woods and roll the asphalt over areas where bear tracks should appear," said St. Petersburg resident Laurie Macdonald, one of five Floridians who joined with three environmental groups to sue the federal agency.

In December 1998, federal wildlife officials rejected a petition to list a particular subspecies of bears unique to Florida, Ursus americanus floridanus. Although 12,000 once roamed the South, state biologists have estimated that 1,500 remain.

Development has fragmented the bears' habitat, leaving their population scattered. Federal officials say that because bears have plenty of government-owned land to call home, the bear's population should remain stable.

The lawsuit pointed out that even in rejecting the nomination, federal wildlife officials expressed pessimism that some bear colonies -- including one in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus and Hernando counties -- could be saved without federal protection.

The plaintiffs noted that in 1992 federal wildlife officials declared "listing the Florida black bear as threatened is warranted" but they were too busy saving other, more endangered species.

Animals on the list are protected from being killed or injured, and their habitat is protected. If the bear was listed, that might lead government agencies to limit road projects that cross bear habitat and buy more forest for preservation.

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