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Environmental Groups: Trading Black Bear Habitat For A Golf Course?

February 23, 2009

A vote to build new houses for people could cost bears their homes, say critics of a proposed land swap plan on Florida's west coast, north of Tampa. The proposal is for a trade of a 90-acre piece of bear habitat to Sun West, a developer that wants to build a new residential golf community in Pasco County, in return for coastal and other land.

The Southwest Water Management District will vote Tuesday on trading the parcel, and environmental groups are rallying to convince the board to say 'No.' They argue that this land is home to a fragile population of black bears and provides a vital corridor for them to move north and south.

Joe Murphy, executive director of Gulf Restoration Network, says the land is critical not only for healthy bears, but also for healthy people. He adds that the land was bought with public money and should stay public property.

"What is now in public ownership, which is used for re-charging our aquifer, which is used for habitat for threatened and endangered species, and which is critical habitat for black bears, will become a golf course if this swap goes through."

Murphy says there are more than enough golf communities in Florida, especially in this economy, and the black bears must be preserved for future generations.

"If we roll over for developers and the politically-powerful who are pushing more houses and less regulation, we will lose the Florida that brought us here in the first place, and future generations will only know bears in the zoo or in a book."

While these additional lands may benefit other wildlife, says Dr. Tom Hoctor, an expert on bears and conservation with the University of Florida, it won’t help the black bears. He says trading this parcel would cut off more than 700 acres of proven bear habitat, and could put these bears at risk.

"Every loss of habitat means this population could disappear, that it could go extinct. We should be protecting all of the habitat versus whittling away at the habitat base, like they're doing here."

The management board says there is no argument that development will affect the habitat, but that they struck the best deal they could, trading the land for nearly 400 coastal acres along with a donation of another 850 acres of land for conservation.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL