Bears center of third day of International Drive hearing

Bears center of third day of International Drive hearing

COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - The majority of the third day of the International Drive hearing was spent on the topic of bears, which are at the center of the case.

Joseph Hamilton has done extensive research on the behavior and movement of black bears. He testified at the hearing at the Administrative Law Court Thursday.

"I'm here to speak for the bears that can't speak for themselves," Hamilton said.

He said the underpasses that were part of the original 2010 International Drive agreement at least give the bears the choice to go under the road instead of trying to cross it when the road breaks up the bear's own habitat.

"That highway kill is a reflection of a bear's response to a broken home. The bedroom doesn't attach to the rest of the house," he said.

Hamilton reviewed roadkill statistics for the court from 2004 to 2015 surrounding Lewis Ocean Bay including accidents on US-22, which has overpasses that allow animals to pass underneath. Horry County's attorney pointed out bears continue to be killed on US-22 anyway.

Hamilton pointed out no information is available on how many bears safely passed under US-22 bridges.

He also says the habitat across International Drive from Lewis Ocean Bay is most like the preserve, meaning that's where the bears would likely travel if they leave, adding to the roadkill statistics.

Horry County argues people's safety is at risk because emergency personnel could access them faster with International Drive.

Hamilton said bear underpasses would benefit people too.

"A 30,000 pound projectile hitting an animal at 45 miles per hour is going to be pretty bad on the vehicle and the animal," he said.

Hamilton said black bear movement is extremely limited in the winter and concentrated during breeding season, May and June, which does coincide with the start of tourist season and increased traffic activity around Horry County.

He said bears are mostly nocturnal and black bears are especially difficult to see in the dark.

Hamilton said a 45 mph speed limit could limit the potential for traffic accidents, but not completely.

The Coastal Conservation League's Nancy Cave said other animals will be able to use the underpasses as well to avoid traffic in the road.

"This movement and the lives of these bears are so important," she said. "We all have a responsibility to protect and as he said, give the bears a choice."

CCL's lawyers, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, closed their case after Hamilton's testimony minus one witness who is recovering from surgery.

Horry County and DHEC presented two wetlands permitting experts as witnesses for the remainder of the afternoon.

They will have several witnesses planned for a continuation of the hearing Monday.

The judge said a final decision could take months.

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