Good News Bears
The Florida Black Bear Makes a Comeback
They’re spotted as fleeting dark shadows along the roads, woods and beaches of the Forgotten Coast and live their lives despite the encroachment of people and development. In fact, the Florida black bear may actually be thriving in parts of Northwest Florida, thanks (or no thanks) to our garbage cans and birdfeeders.
Florida black bears have made a strong comeback since they were placed on the state threatened species list in 1974.
There are currently more of these animals around than at any time in the past 100 years and, thanks to their population growth, there’s a good chance they’ll be taken off the list in June. That means people are going to be seeing more and more of them in the near future, and we will have to learn to live with them.
“This is a really interesting time for bears in Florida,” said David Telesco, bear management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “I think we’re moving into a situation where a lot of us, especially states in the Southeast, are having a lot of bears.”
Telesco said the population growth has changed the philosophy of conservationists.
“It used to be strictly ‘recover, recover,’ and now it’s, ‘How do we live with the bears we have, and try to reduce the conflicts that people have with them?’,” he said.
Bears have a far-reaching, positive impact on the environment. They’re an “umbrella” species with an important role in the local ecosystem. Their presence supports many other species and helps keep our forests and swamps in a natural balance.
Florida black bears aren’t exactly particular when it comes to their environment, but they prefer heavily forested areas. More than 1,000 call the Ocala National Forest home, making that region the most heavily populated area. But there are seven other population centers: the Apalachicola National Forest and Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida, as well as Big Cypress National Preserve, Osceola National Forest, the St. Johns River near St. Augustine, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and portions of Glades and Highlands counties.
These are places where the bears can traditionally be found, said Telesco, and their expansion in these areas is a natural result of conservation efforts.
“A lot of the efforts that were made before were to allow bears where they existed historically to expand in these areas — and allow that population growth,” he said.
Bears in Florida may not necessarily hibernate, but they do slow down their behavior and seek dens in the winter. They take shelter in ground nests, thickets and fallen branches. Pregnant females den from December to April and can emerge with two cubs. Other bears den as necessary, based on what food is available, and can go into a deep sleep from which they can be roused easily.
A black bear’s diet is 80 percent nuts, fruits, vegetables and saw palmetto berries. They will also eat bugs for protein, and small mammals on occasion. As people steadily develop communities within their habitat though, the bears also have taken an opportunistic liking to pet food, birdseed and garbage. These are fast and easy food resources and what primarily leads to human-bear encounters.
“They can smell a mile away, literally, so they pick up the scent of food,” Telesco said. “Now, granted, we wouldn’t consider garbage food, but there’s plenty of calories in the garbage that we put out, and that gives off a scent. So, they’ll go and they’ll knock over the garbage can and rummage through there. The reality is, even if there’s good food in the forest, the bears can get a lot more calories with a lot less effort if they knock over a garbage can to get it.”
Florida black bears are generally not aggressive. They’re actually quite timid, and will run away from humans. However, the increased frequency of encounters is beginning to change bears’ behavior. Like alligators, bears lose their natural fear of humans when people feed them and allow them easy access to food. This decreased fear makes the animal more daring, and as a result they put themselves in harm’s way. Although the biggest threat is loss of habitat, the majority of deaths are caused by vehicle collisions. How humans react to the bears they encounter is crucial in defining spaces for them and keeping both sides safe.
Telesco said that people should be firm with bears that come around looking for snacks.
“If it’s your yard, what you want to do is let the bear know that it’s your yard, and they’re not welcome,” he said. “So if you’re in your house, on your porch or next to your car, you yell at them, you beat your horn, you bang pots and pans and let them know that they’re not welcome. For a wild bear, that’s pretty scary.”
On the other hand, humans become the intruder when they venture into the bears’ wilderness. So if you are out hiking in the woods and come across a black bear, respect the animal’s space and back out quietly.
“If you’re in the woods, that’s their backyard,” Telesco said. “So you back off, you back away, you have your arms in the air and you just talk softly and make sure the bear knows they have an easy way out and you’re not threatening to them.”
The Florida black bear is a state-protected species, and it’s a third-degree felony to kill one. The penalty is up to five years in jail and/or a $5,000 fine, and the perpetrator will have it on his or her record for life. Also, it’s illegal to feed bears, whether intentionally or not. This can include such seemingly harmless acts as always leaving garbage unsecured.
“The best thing you can do, if you can do it, is to keep that garbage can secure either in the garage or in a sturdy shed until the morning of pickup,” said Telesco. And, if you have pet feeders or bird feeders outside, make sure they aren’t left out overnight, and in some cases, they should be put up during the day.
Bear-proof garbage containers are available in many counties with high bear populations. If you don’t have a public waste management provider, bear-proof containers can be purchased online or through hardware supply stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.