Are the Chassahowitzka (Chazz) Bears OK?

 Chazz Bears are dangerously Isolated

The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Nature Coast was established in 1943 as a winter preserve for migratory water birds. Today, over 31,000 acres are protected and managed by several federal, state and local government agencies with the goal of offering migrating and wintering water birds a place to rest and feed.

It is a beautiful wilderness place, with first magnitude springs feeding the 12-mile long Chassahowitzka River, estuaries, coastal marshlands, swamplands and sandhills.  In fact, whooping cranes winter in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Within this area there are 7,500 acres of hardwood swamp in and uplands which provides good habitat for the Florida black bear.

About Florida’s Black Bears

The Florida black bear is rebounding from endangered status. It is the largest native mammal to live in the Sunshine State.

The Florida black bear is the largest native land mammal in Florida. They are shy, and rarely seen in the wild, but will raid human trash cans when available. Once they have found food, the bears are known to return to the site multiple times looking for their “free meal.”

Two of these furry omnivores live at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where visitors have an opportunity to observe their playful nature.

Biddy is a resident black bear at the Wildlife Park. She can be playful. Image courtesy of Susan Strawbridge.

Female black bears can weigh 150 – 200 pounds, with males tipping the scales at 300-450 pounds. Most Florida black bears are 5 to 6 feet long and about 3 feet high at the shoulder, smaller than their northern cousins, but still a substantial size. They live 15-30 years on average.

Bear Habitats

Bears thrive in multiple ecosystems with constant food sources and large areas to roam. Image courtesy of FWC.

Black bears are an “umbrella species,” requiring a variety of habitats over a large geographic area. As such, they share living space with other protected, threatened and endangered animals, including the gopher tortoise, Eastern Indigo snake, and the Florida scrub jay. By protecting the Florida black bear and its habitat, we also protect these other species’ habitats.

It is believed that at one time there were as many as 12,000 black bears living throughout Florida. Black bears no longer roam throughout the entire state. In the 1970s, the estimated number of adult Florida black bears had fallen to 300. In 2002, the Florida black bear was taken off the endangered species list because their populations had grown to over 4,000.

Managing Bear Populations

Mother and cub roaming. Image courtesy of FWC.

In 2015, a hunt was approved for Florida’s black bear population.  It was suggested through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission that the species’ population was large enough to need culling, but it looked more like a reaction to bear-human interactions to some.

“Bears are thriving in Florida, they’re doing well,” Thomas Eason, director of the FWC’s habitat and species conservation division, said. “They’re continuing to grow in numbers.”

In two days, more than 300 Florida black bears were killed. The hunt was shut down until at least 2019, citing the need to finish studying the population, find ways to work with local agencies and educate the public on how to reduce bear-human conflicts.

“A hunt is consuming, it is consuming to this agency all the way around,” FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said. “And the benefit that we get with this species at this moment in time, I don’t know if it’s worth the consumption that our team is going to go through and we’re all going to go through.”

Chassahowitzka’s Black Bears are Isolated

Bear cub looking around a tree. Image courtesy of FWC.

It was estimated in 2002 that only 11 black bears live in the Chassahowitzka area, one of only eight areas in the state where bears roam freely. Today, there are estimated to be less than twenty “Chazz bears”, while in Alachua, Lake and Marion Counties more than 1,200 black bears are thriving. These bears would be within the Chazz bears’ natural roaming area, but highways and development keep them separated.

Bear biologists believe a healthy bear population requires a minimum of 400,000 acres of habitat land to survive! Increased land development and the destruction of bear habitats have lead many bears to cross busy highways in search of living space and food. As a result, automobiles are the most frequent killer of Florida’s black bears.

To keep our “Chazz” bears from becoming inbred, we need to find a way to connect these furry NatureCoasters with the population(s) outside of our area.

Let’s Help Connect the Chazz Bears

An aerial view of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of FWC.

The Florida black bear is an important part of the state’s ecosystems.

As NatureCoasters we can work together to plan for these animals to be able to roam freely to meet other bear populations in the state. US 19 and I-75 are the major highways keeping the Florida black bear population isolated in Chassahowitzka. Soon, the Suncoast Parkway will be extended to Crystal River, adding another major impediment to the bears ability to roam.

Black bears easily open most human trash containers. Once they find food, they are notorious for returning to the same place, looking for “seconds”.

Just a couple of months ago, on June 21, Madison Showalter looked out in her back yard and saw a bear in her backyard. She lives in Lexington Oaks, a golf course subdivision in Wesley Chapel. When she screamed the bear fled. FWC believes that bear was wandering from the Chassahowitzka area. Bear cubs are forced out from their families as they age. Then they range, seeking their own territory.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor is spearheading a campaign to convince our legislators to adequately fund conservation of wildlife corridors throughout the state. These include valuable lands and waters within the Nature Coast. Creating safe wildlife passages, such as wildlife under- or over-passes on roads, is also an important step in protecting migrating wildlife species, such as the Florida black bear. The organization will be filming a short video about preserving our beautiful nature coast and highlighting initiatives to allow the Chazz bears to roam safely to other areas and breed with other subpopulations within the state, ultimately improving the health of the bear population.

Bears are amazing climbers. The Chazz bears are isolated in their beautiful home. Development and roadways unintentionally confine them to a solitary existence which is likely to end in extinction after inbreeding if we don’t step in.

If you are a realtor, developer or business person in Florida’s Nature Coast, please evaluate how the natural beauty of this area has affected you. Tourism and hospitality are two of our largest industries and they depend on taking care of the fauna and flora we have. When you are faced with a decision about development, remember how preserving the “nature” in our area preserves our desire to live here.

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