Coastal Bear Dispute Reaches Columbia Courtroom
February 16th, 2016
By Sammy Fretwell
COLUMBIA - Boosters of a new highway near Myrtle Beach fired away Tuesday at what has become the chief obstacle to their road-building plans: a population of black bears living along the thoroughfare’s route. On the opening day of a trial that could determine whether the road is built, Horry County officials said the welfare of black bears should not be the factor that decides the future of the five-laned highway between Myrtle Beach and Conway. The issue is of statewide interest because the Myrtle Beach area has some of the most congested roads in South Carolina, but also one of the Palmetto State’s largest bear populations.
Bears have for years been run over by cars as tourists jammed the resort and the area’s permanent population grew. Now, a coalition of government and business leaders wants to build a road through prime bear habitat next to the 10,000-acre Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. The plan would give a highway alternative to congested U.S. 501, but Horry County’s efforts have been challenged in court by environmentalists. Attorneys for conservation groups said Tuesday the approximately six-mile-long road will split up wildlife habitat and imperil bears that try to cross it. But Stan Barnett, an attorney representing Horry County, said black bears aren’t unusual enough to deny building the road, known as International Drive. “The black bear ... is not threatened or endangered under federal law or state law,’’ Barnett said Tuesday in addressing the S.C. Administrative Law Court. He urged the court not to overturn state Department of Health and Environmental Control permits to build the road through about 20 acres of wetlands. “I don’t think DHEC has the discretion to deny (approval) because there might be adverse impacts to the black bears,’’ Barnett said. At the center of the dispute is whether Horry County should install wildlife culverts so the bears can pass safely beneath the new road. The county and the state Department of Natural Resources agreed to do that six years ago, but later backed away as politicians howled about the added $3 million cost. The road had at one time been projected to cost more than $16 million. Barnett maintained that large numbers of black bears don’t live in Lewis Ocean Bay all the time, and since a 2009 forest fire, their population has dwindled on the preserve between Conway and Myrtle Beach. Those are among the reasons Barnett said installing $3 million worth of bear culverts is a bad idea. “That’s a $3 million bet, in our estimation, for a county that doesn’t have $3 million to just throw away,’’ Barnett said, adding that “There is no evidence at all that these crossings will work.’’ Records provided by the Department of Natural Resources to The State last year showed that Horry and surrounding counties contain South Carolina’s second-highest population of black bears, behind only populations in the mountains. Overall, South Carolina has an estimated 1,200 black bears, agency officials have said. But more bears in coastal South Carolina die in collisions with cars than bears in the state’s mountain counties, according to DNR records reviewed by The State last year. During a 10-year period beginning in 2003, motorists killed more than 200 coastal bears, roughly twice the amount as in the mountains, records show. An attorney for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation, which are challenging permits for the road, said there is plenty of evidence nationally that bear crossings and fencing help protect wildlife from collisions with automobiles. ’’There is no scientific basis for eliminating the bear underpasses,’’ said Amy Armstrong, a lawyer with the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “It was something done at Horry County’s request because they didn’t want to spend the money to install the bear underpasses.’’ Armstrong said building a road through bear country would degrade Lewis Ocean Bay and affect wildlife that frequents the preserve — including black bears. “There are some things .... that are just too important to eliminate, destroy and to lose,’’ she said. Armstrong and retired federal wildlife biologist Steve Gilbert, a witness who testified on behalf of environmentalists Tuesday, said the new road will hurt bear populations by breaking up their habitat and limiting their ability to get safely across the highway. “It’s going to be bad for bears and all wildlife that likes to move around,’’ Gilbert said after the hearing. Armstrong said there are alternatives to continuing to fight over the road’s future. Horry County could agree to install bear culverts, which would allow the road project to move ahead, but the county has been unwilling to compromise, she said.