The changing of seasons has led to Florida black bears coming out of hibernation, as well as a surge in complaints for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Earlier this year, the FWC Commission began reaching out to the public to gather their opinions on bear issues and educate them on how to prevent human-bear interactions. The final of seven public meetings in the central Florida region was held in Gainesville on March 25. More meetings will continue in other areas across the state.
This effort stems from the 2012 decision to remove black bears from the threatened species list. Although the steadily increasing population could warrant delisting, the FWC Commission created the Bear Management Plan to coordinate protection and regulation efforts, according to the FWC Commission website.
The plan divided Florida into manageable regions, or Bear Management Units. Of the seven units, the central Florida regional unit is the largest and includes Alachua, Putnam, Orange, Marion, Lake and eight other neighboring counties.
The meetings gathered local officials, nonprofit organizations and residents from the central Florida region to form the unit’s bear stakeholder group. The group will gather a few times a year with FWC Commission officials to discuss the specific issues the area has, which will help tailor the commission’s efforts from a statewide view to a local one.
Caitlin O’Connor, bear stakeholder group coordinator for FWC Commission, said each of these subpopulations has different issues.
“We also have the mix of the rural people that are interested in hunting and the urban people who don’t want to see the bears [hunted],” she said. “So even within the central bear management unit, there’s a lot of different viewpoints.”
At the March 25 meeting, several hunters expressed concerns over economic issues involved with future hunting and the cost of relocating problem bears. Others asked about conservation land, car collisions and when bears were most active.
Amanda Reese, Levy County resident and hunter, said she wanted to see how the FWC Commission was progressing.
“FWC has a big job ahead of them to try to figure out how to manage them, how to reduce interactions, what to do in the future,” Reese said.
Florida black bears took a hit to their reputation as merely nuisances this past December when one Seminole County bear sent a woman to the hospital.
“It was a mauling,” O’Connor said. “We don’t shy away from that word.”
The incident involved a woman who was attacked by a bear with cubs while walking her dog. She retreated slowly when she saw the bear, but she passed by close enough that the female bear attacked her.
O’Connor said backing away was the right thing to do, but the bear kept on after her.
Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the FWC Commission, said keeping garbage and pet food inside is one way to prevent nuisance complaints, which make up 31 percent of calls about bears.
“The best course of action is to prevent a bear from being a problem bear,” she said. “And the best way to do that is to keep attractants away.”
According to the FWC Commission, to prevent the more than 100 vehicular bear deaths per year, the commission digs tunnels for bears to walk through under higher traffic roads, establishes speed limits and makes it clear that there are bears in the area with road signs.
Bear biologist and FWC Commission researcher Walter McCown, who has studied bears for about 15 years, said the one takeaway he wanted people to learn was respect for bears.
“I want them to value bears and value them enough to change their way of life,” McCown said.
Along with forming the groups and gathering public opinion, the next step for the FWC Commission is to make another bear population estimate, which will start this May, McCown said. The updated number will help the commission educate all the new Florida residents.
“Welcome to Florida,” O’Connor said. “We have bears.”