Florida's black bear


Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 10:55 p.m.

The recent news that Florida's black bear population is increasing struck a cord of hope among those who have sought to protect this subspecies of the American black bear.

The Florida black bear lives in, well, Florida. But bears don't know much about borders so they can be found in southern parts of Georgia and Alabama, too.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can't say with total certainty, but there are strong indications that efforts to replenish this once prolific but now protected species are working. Part of this is due to hunting restrictions. Another is habitat protection.

The strongest indicator of this increase is somewhat troubling, however. State officials are basing their theory on the fact that more bears are being killed on Florida roadways. Also up are nuisance complaints and sightings. People call to report bears raiding outdoor trash cans or the livestock feed trough or just plain old scaring the dickens out of people.

For unknown reasons, bears don't walk slowly across a road. They are more likely to emerge from the woods and then quickly charge across a road. Most kills happen at night when bears are most active.

Take a dark night, a dark road, a black bear that wants to get to the other side of the road, and an unsuspecting motorist, and you've got a potential bear kill in the making. Those who have experienced hitting a bear on a road at night often later report seeing nothing but what they thought was a large, rolling bag of garbage immediately in front of their automobile. The results can mean death for the bear and major damage to a vehicle - perhaps even occupant injuries.

Furthermore, when officials erect bear signs, it's because there has been a high number of bear deaths in that area.

The Wildlife Commission doesn't have hard data on bear populations at this time, but between road kill and complaint counts, it's clear the habits of bears and people do collide at times. Consider this: There are about 10,000 addresses in the Ocala National Forest. So maybe 20,000 or so people live amidst a bear habitat. So it's become increasingly common for people to find bears in back yard trees or signs of bears foraging for food around homes.

Minus these temptations, Florida bears usually feed on berries and nuts. But bears can quickly become accustomed to the idea that a midnight snack from a garbage can or pet's food bowl is much easier than scavenging for acorns and black berries.

Also, bears are usually just as afraid of people as people are of them. Still, some people make the mistake of feeding wildlife, including bears. And once a bear associates food with people ... need we say any more?

To date, there's never been a documented case of a person being attacked by a bear in Florida, say commission officials - who want to keep it that way. So the general rule when it comes to black bears is: Don't feed them; don't leave food in pet dishes or garbage cans outside over night that might attract bears. Don't corner or otherwise threaten them or their young. And when driving at night in known bear habitats - like the 400,000-acre Ocala National Forest means - be mindful that you're not likely to see a bear until you're right up upon one. So be especially careful.

The Wildlife Commission continues to study problems related to bears. But for now, the good news is that measures put in place to preserve and protect the Florida black bear seem to be showing progress. By protecting bears from hunting and acquiring additional forest lands to forever ensure a habitat for them and their offspring, we all benefit.

Every animal has its own unique role in nature and life. We may or may not understand what it is, but we must always endeavor to respect and coexist with wildlife living around us.

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