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Florida's Growth Putting Bears in Harm's Way

June 22, 2004|From Orlando Sentinel

MAITLAND, Fla. — Florida's relentless growth is pushing the endangered black bear out of the woods and closer than ever to cities -- often with deadly results.

In the past, bears were more likely to be struck and killed by cars in rural Central Florida, but in the last two months three have wandered onto Interstate 4 near Orlando. Two of them died, including one Saturday night.

Those incidents have raised concerns that development is squeezing more of the large animals from their forest habitat to one of Central Florida's busiest urban areas.

Although Orlando is about 40 miles southeast of the Ocala National Forest -- the site of the state's largest population of protected black bears -- sightings around the city are still unexpected. Most bear deaths on roadways occur on increasingly busy rural roads in Lake and Marion counties closer to the 400,000-acre forest.

Maitland, a city of 17,000 people surrounded by several other cities and miles of dense development, has had three accidents with bears in the last two months.

"The first two were pretty strange around here," said Maitland Police Chief Gary Calhoun. "Now we've had a third one."

The crash at 11 p.m. Saturday killed a 230-pound bear and damaged a van along northbound I-4. The driver was taken to Florida Hospital North in Altamonte Springs with injuries to her hands, according to police reports.

Calhoun said a vehicle killed another bear several weeks ago in the same area.

On May 15, another bear was struck in the same area on I-4, but survived. A biologist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission used a tranquilizer dart to subdue the animal, which was released in the Ocala forest.

"This year is becoming a fairly regular thing for bears to be moving into that area," said Susan Carroll-Douglas, a natural resources biologist. "The population is growing; this is the time of the year for young males to spread out into new territories. Unfortunately, Orlando is one of those areas."

Carroll-Douglas said the bears likely were wandering from their normal habitat around the Ocala National Forest and the Seminole State Forest.

So far this year, Central Florida has accounted for more than half of the state's 39 bear road deaths.

As many as 12,000 bears once roamed Florida. But in the mid-1900s, development, logging and unregulated hunting depleted the population.

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