The presence of bears dwelling in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is a key issue dividing opponents and supporters over the construction of International Drive, but the lack of information on the number of bears inhabiting the 9,000-acre preserve has muddled the debate.
County officials originally planned for a two-lane road with three bear tunnels to protect them from being hit by passing cars.
Road plans were modified in 2013 to eliminate the tunnels and extend the road to four lanes after a devastating wildfire swept through the area in 2009. County officials claimed the fire forced the bears to relocate to other habitats, diminishing the need for wildlife tunnels.
According to information provided by state wildlife officials under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 29 bears were identified by genetics testing in 2008 and 24 bears in 2009. The number dwindled to 17 in 2010, and only seven in 2011.
By 2014, the genetics analysis identified only 10 bears inhabiting the preserve, putting tunnel construction costs at $300,000 per bear.
While the seven studies provided to The Sun News back up the county’s claim, information also provided under the FOIA request shows that highway traffic surrounding the preserve killed a significant number of bears.
Prior to the 2009 fire, the documents show that 70 bears were killed on highways and some secondary roads bordering the preserve, primarily S.C. Highway 90, S.C. Highway 22, and S.C. Highway 31.
James Luken, associate provost and director of graduate studies at Coastal Carolina University, says the high roadkill numbers suggest a significant number of bears are transiting through swamps connecting different coastal habitats, including the Lewis Bay preserve.
“The problem with (the preserve) is that it is in the middle of a rapidly urbanizing area,” Luken said.
Luken says the bear traffic is moving both ways as the animals try to connect with different habitats along the Waccamaw River, and he believes that paving International Drive will only increase the number of bears killed on bordering roads.
“It’s going to become a significant ecological habitat that is an island surrounded by roads and development,” Luken said. “It’s a risky island if they try to get off and go the wrong way.
“They will go on the move when there are droughts or fires, and this of course puts them at greater risk of roadkill,” Luken said.
Overall, the studies show a relatively low density of bears in the Lewis Ocean Bay area, Luken said.
“It looks to me like there’s not a lot out there,” Luken said.
Hunting statistics also suggest a small population of black bears near International Drive.
Although 140 hunting tags have been issued for Horry County since 2011, only five bears have been harvested, none of which were taken from the preserve, the documents show.
Only one collared bear in the preserve is currently being tracked by state wildlife officials.
The Sun News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources on Dec. 14 to determine the population figures, and the documents were finally released Feb. 10 after the newspaper appealed initial demands by the agency to pay $332 for the information.
The Sun News disputed the charges citing the public interest in the disclosure of the reports that detailed government operations and the spending of taxpayer dollars.
Caroline Pinckney, Freedom of Information officer for the Natural Resources Department, said in an email they decided to grant the appeal by The Sun News “as we feel it is in the best interest to the public to have all black bear data.”
The documents released by the agency included a 2001 thesis presented to Clemson University graduate school on the biology of the black bears in the northern coastal plain of South Carolina, statewide population numbers, and the genetics studies conducted in the Lewis Bay area. The information also included a map of bear road kills near Lewis Bay, and bear hunting statistics.
Audrey Hudson 843-444-1765; Twitter @AudreyHudson
Bear Road Kills