When Murphy regained his freedom 4 1/2 years ago, he became one of a handful of Florida black bears living in coastal Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Sep. 26CHASSAHOWITZKA, Fla. When Murphy regained his freedom 4 1/2 years ago, he became one of a handful of Florida black bears living in coastal Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
A short time later, he earned another distinction: He became one of the few bears known to have crossed U.S. 19 that was still breathing.
He made it to east Citrus County, got into mischief and was relocated to a more remote area.
Other members of his state- classified threatened species haven't been so lucky.
Bears living in this area, known as the Greater Chassahowitzka Ecosystem, are isolated from other groups. For the most part, they are imprisoned by highways and other development. Those that try to break out have little success.
From 1976 through 2003, 35 bears were killed by cars in that area, said University of Kentucky researcher Dave Maehr, who formerly worked with bears and other species for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While the statewide population is estimated at 3,000 animals in seven habitats, Maehr says no more than 20 are believed to be living in the Chassahowitzka Ecosystem.
Mary Barnwell, a biologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, paints a grimmer picture.
"In 2002, the estimate was 18 to 28 bears," she said. "In 2003, it was seven to 12."
That's based on studies that used food to attract the bears to areas with motion-activated cameras.
Individual bears were identified using photographs, as well as DNA from fur samples snatched from the bears as they passed barbed-wire snares.
The size of the colony makes Chassahowitzka's the smallest known black bear population in North America one that may be doomed by inbreeding and other threats.
Researchers say 50 bears are needed to sustain short-term survival of a colony, and 500 bears for the long-term.
But several challenges stand in the way of turning the numbers around.
Highway slaughter is a major problem in the Chassahowitzka area and in the seven other habitats: Highlands and surrounding counties, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ocala National Forest, Apalachicola National Forest, Eglin Air Force Base, Osceola National Forest and, farther east, in northeast Florida.
Since 1976, 84 percent of the nearly 1,400 documented bear deaths were caused by collisions, Maehr said.
Loss of habitat is another threat. It began with early 20th century logging operations and then-legal hunting.
Today, it continues with the development of roads, subdivisions and farms.
Poaching also is a threat.
One example happened this year in Pasco County when Gary McQuiston II, 45, was sentenced to nearly a year in county jail after pleading no contest to killing a 450-pound bear during a December 2002 hunting trip on private land in western Pasco. McQuiston said it was dark and he thought he shot a wild hog.
Another problem is that male bears frequently kill cubs sired by other males, Barnwell said.
"They kill the cubs, bringing the female into heat, so they can spread their own genes," she said.
"Then another male does the same to their cubs."
Chassahowitzka's isolation intensifies the effects of these deaths.
The Chassahowitzka habitat has nearly 166,000 forested acres owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, and other government agencies.
An additional 30,000 acres are being considered for purchase.
"We're always buying, but we don't buy for bears," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "It's for water, but once we buy, if bears are on it, we have to manage" the land as such.
But land purchases and the yellow bear-warning signs that line U.S. 19 aren't enough, Maehr said.
Corridors or escape paths are needed to allow the bears to reach other habitats and colonies.
"The future depends on where roads will go and where we buy land," Maehr said.
The best place for Chassahowitzka's bears to expand is north.
"There are links to the Big Bend," that stretch of upper Gulf Coast region between peninsula Florida and the Florida Panhandle, Maehr added. "They can swim the 1/8Cross Florida Barge3/8 Canal, and we can buy land and build highway underpasses and overpasses for them to travel."
Another possibility is to provide a pathway to the Green Swamp in Central Florida.
Time may run out before the colony can expand and breed with other groups.
"We have not gotten real positive indicators that there has been recruitment of other colonies into Chassahowitzka," Barnwell said. "That's not a good sign."
As breeding stock dies, the population could vanish.
Murphy remains a success story and perhaps provides an inkling of hope.
As a youngster in 1998, he was hit by a car in Highlands County. Ninety of his cousins died that year in collisions, but he survived. Veterinarians at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo treated his injuries, then the state sent him to recover at the Big Bend Wildlife Sanctuary in the Panhandle.
He grew from 25 to 180 pounds, getting fat and feisty on nuts and berries before he was released in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in January 1999.
"He was about a year old when he was released," said Mark Cunningham, a wildlife commission veterinarian.
"He did real well for a while, eating the natural vegetation, then he turned up missing after two or three months," Cunningham said. "We found him southeast of Inverness. He'd crossed roads and the 1/8Withlacoochee State3/8 Forest and was causing problems at a trailer park."
When he was caught, he had a broken leg.
"He'd either been hit by a car or shot," Cunningham said.
The leg "wasn't too functional, but we gave him antibiotics and released him back in Chassahowitzka."
There he became a nuisance again, getting into garbage and creating other mischief in Hernando Beach. This time he was moved to Ocala National Forest, where he managed to get rid of his radio collar. He also acquired a taste for chickens, which he stole from coops.
He was caught again and released in a more remote part of the forest, Cunningham said.
The last sight of him was his furry backside hightailing it deeper into the brush.
Learn about Florida black bears online at Learn about Florida black bears online at http://wildflorida.org/bear/default.htm. http://wildflorida.org/bear/default.htm.
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