Black Bear Habitat Threatened
Posted: January 27, 2015
International Drive is a low-impact dirt road located in the rural reaches of Horry County between S.C. 31 and S.C. 90. The County seeks to alter this road from a small dirt cut-through into a paved four-lane highway suitable for 60 mph traffic in hopes of easing traffic to and from large-scale development, Carolina Forest, and the greater Myrtle Beach area. Unfortunately, the project would also bisect a contiguous and nearly pristine habitat bordering the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, and impact 24.17 acres of wetlands. After numerous agencies and citizens submitted comments and concerns about the initial project and the lack of information on impacts, the applicant provided additional information in an attempt to address the significant problems identified with the proposal.
The most prominent concerns with the project involve the endangerment of already vulnerable native Horry County wildlife who rely on this rare piece of contiguously undeveloped land for their habitat. For instance, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has been listed as an endangered species since 1970. Horry County reported that 19 red-cockaded woodpecker cavities are located within a 0.5 mile radius of the proposed roadway. The County states that the proposed project will require habitat removal of at least one active and one inactive cluster of cavities, yet the report concludes that the project is not likely to adversely impact this species.
Another iconic South Carolina species found in the area in question is the black bear, of which only 1,150 are thought to exist in South Carolina based on a 2007 study. Though bears once thrived throughout the state, sustainable populations are now limited to the mountain and coastal zones. Although bear populations in the mountains are thought to be twice the size of those in the coastal zone, rates of bear mortality from auto collisions are consistently higher on the coast. In 2007 the coastal population of bears lost 41 individuals due to car wrecks.
A 2008-2010 census conducted by DNR based on DNA analysis of hair samples, counted 42 black bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Horry County, adjacent to the International Drive project. In 2010, as part of the original contract between the County and DNR for the right-of-way for the proposed road, three 24' wide animal passageways were to be constructed under the roadway with fencing to safely guide wildlife and reduce the likelihood of collisions between motorists and black bears. These passageways have been successfully constructed around the world to reduce collisions that harm wildlife and damage cars. Unfortunately, the 2013 amended agreement between DNR and the County eliminated the animal passages and the County claims wildlife crossing signs and warning indications will be sufficient to protect passing wildlife from vehicles.
In light of the additional information provided, we remain concerned about this project for several reasons. The applicant failed to demonstrate that they had conducted a thorough feasible alternatives analysis. The amended agreement altered the project from an innovative effort to preserve our state’s iconic megafauna to an assurance that bear collisions will only become more frequent. Perhaps the most troublesome issue is the failure of the report to properly assess the extent of indirect and cumulative impacts of future secondary development, and propose appropriate mitigation within the watershed. Since this tract of land is located in an oasis of green surrounded by development, it is highly unlikely that the impacts will end once the area is split and made accessible by a four-lane highway for residents, commuters, and large trash trucks heading for the Horry County landfill.
The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting comments on the additional information provided for the proposed roadway project. For more information, or to submit comments, contact: Rob Huff, Charleston District Corps of Engineers, 1949 Industrial Park Road, Room 140, Conway, SC 29526. The deadline is February 1, 2015.