International Drive court testimony focuses on the needs of bears versus humans

Are bears more important than people?

Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught on testimony presented by environmentalists during court hearing Tuesday.
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Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught on testimony presented by environmentalists during court hearing Tuesday.

If a bear crosses the road, what path will it take?

That was one of numerous questions put before the state Administrative Law Court on Tuesday during hearings that will decide whether construction of International Drive can proceed.

The dispute was brought against Horry County and the state by environmentalists who say the road should not be built at all, but contend that if construction goes forward if should include three bear tunnels along the proposed four-lane highway between Carolina Forest and S.C. 90.

The 5-mile road would be constructed alongside the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, where both sides agreed that the bear population had dwindled because of environmental factors such as wildfires or drought.

Where they differ is whether the tunnels are still needed after a 2009 wildfire drove the population from the area, or whether bears would use the tunnels to cross the road.

Stan Barnett, attorney for Horry County Public Works, told the court that five bear tunnels were constructed underneath S.C. 22, yet nearly 30 bears have been struck by cars in just over a decade.

If the county bowed to the demands of environmentalists and built the tunnels agreed to five years ago, Barnett questioned whether the $3 million cost would be a waste of taxpayer dollars if bears ignore those tunnels as they do along S.C. 22.

“I don’t want to be a smart aleck, but how does a bear know which tunnel to use?” asked Ralph Anderson, the Administrative Law Court Chief Judge.

Steve Gilbert, a biologist with the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, one of the organizations asking the court to block permits needed to build the road, occupied the witness stand for most of Tuesday’s hearing.

Gilbert testified that bears have to be “educated” about new migration paths and directed towards tunnels using fencing and other methods such as baiting.

I don’t want to be a smart aleck, but how does a bear know which tunnel to use?

Ralph Anderson, Administrative Law Court Chief Judge.

However, Gilbert also told the court that bears tend to avoid lengthy tunnels. If wildlife tunnels were constructed on International Drive, the paths would stretch underneath four driving lanes plus a turning lane.

The cost to build International Drive is estimated at $16.5 million, and the bear tunnels would add another $3 million to the price tag.

Barnett argued that the human populace of Horry County outweighs the needs of the bears, and said that International Drive would be an emergency shortcut for residents along S.C. 90 to reach medical care, to evacuate in cases of fires or floods, and as an evacuation route out of Myrtle Beach.

Barnett asked Gilbert directly whether he believed human life was more important than bears, but the environmentalist hedged on answering the question, even when directed to do so by Judge Anderson.

Gilbert said he was not advocating the loss of human life, but that bears were just as important as humans.

“I don’t think it’s either, or — it’s both,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert disputed that constructing International Drive was a safety issue, and suggested the road would be dangerous for drivers who exceeded the 45 mile per hour speed limit and leading to a head-on collision with bears.

“It would be overshadowed by other factors that negate the benefits,” Gilbert said of the proposed emergency use for the road.

Amy Armstrong, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, is representing the environmentalists and argued that black bears are rare in the state and should be protected in the Lewis Ocean Bay preserve.

“The value it provides is habitat, whether the bears are there or not,” she said.

Armstrong also said that building the road would disrupt the continuity of the black bear habitat, which stretches to North Carolina.

“We don’t believe the road should be paved at all,” Armstrong said.

However, she said that if road construction goes forward, it should be limited to a two-lane road with a 35 mile per hour speed limit so the bears don’t have to go as far, or as fast, to get across the road in traffic.

Lawyers for the county and South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) said that state wildlife officials with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agreed there was no need for the bear tunnels after the fires of 2009.

“There is no significant impact to wildlife in this case. DNR raised no issue about bears and they are the agency with full management authority,” said Michael Traynham, assistant general counsel for DHEC.

We don’t believe the road should be paved at all,”

Amy Armstrong, lawyer, South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Traynham and Barnett also pointed out that while black bears are rare in the coastal region, they are not federally protected as threatened or endangered creatures, and that bear hunting is permitted by the state.

Documents obtained by The Sun News through a Freedom of Information Act request to DNR showed that 140 tags to hunt bears in Horry County have been issued since 2015, although no bears were taken from the preserve.

The documents also disclosed that as many as 29 bears inhabited the Lewis Ocean Bay preserve prior to the fire in 2009, but only 10 were counted in the area in 2014.

Gilbert told the court that the bears likely left the area because of a drought preceding the fire, and said the population was likely to return to the preserve.

The documents disclosed by the DNR also show that prior to the fire, 70 bears were killed on highways and some secondary roads bordering the preserve, primarily S.C. 90, S.C. 22, and S.C. 31. After the fire, 11 bears have been killed on those roads.

Both teams of lawyers hauled in numerous boxes filled with documents and exhibits they expect to show the court this week. What started as a three-day hearing is now expected to stretch through Friday.

Environmentalists expect to call four more witnesses including an expert on bears. The county plans to present three witnesses, including Chris Eldridge, Horry County administrator, and Steve Gosnell, Horry County assistant county administrator for infrastructure and regulation.

Once the judge has heard both sides, it is expected to take a least a month before he reaches a decision whether to allow the state-issued permits to stand.

That verdict might not be the final say in the project, as the losing side can appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The road was on track for construction to begin last year and a completion date expected before the end of 2016, however the project can’t move forward until the legal challenge is resolved.

Audrey Hudson 843-444-1765; Twitter @AudreyHudson