Teddy Bear News

Black Bear Sightings increase in FL; Comment on FL Bear Plan
Author: teddygirl | Tuesday August 31, 2010

The following is from the Sun Sentinel, a newspaper in South Florida.

In the 1950s, pounded by wide-open hunting and the loss of habitat to farms and cities, Florida's black bears had become ghosts of the forests, elusive and rarely seen.

Today, they're all too visible.

A black bear showed up in Weston, prowling gated communities and city streets before wildlife officials hit it with a dart at a busy intersection. Another visited Universal Orlando and hung out at the Hard Rock Hotel's pool until it was captured. Road kills and complaints of bears in garbage have soared, particularly north of Orlando where a booming bear population is bursting out of the Ocala National Forest.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has drafted a bear management plan that attempts to grapple with all the issues raised by the resurgence of a species that can reach 600 pounds and has a taste for garbage.

The plan calls for setting up local resident groups to work out bear issues; reducing those killed on roads; establishing wilderness corridors to reconnect shrinking, genetically isolated bear populations along the Gulf coast with larger ones inland; and — most controversially — considering whether Florida should reopen bear hunting, banned in 1994.

The goal is a healthy bear population that stays in the forests, not the suburbs, with enough habitat to support bears and all the other creatures that live where they live.

"Bear protection goes beyond bears," said Laurie Macdonald, Florida program director for Defenders of Wildlife, who served on a committee that helped evaluate the draft plan. "If we protect enough areas for the bears, we're really protecting natural systems that all of us love and depend on."

The most explosive issue raised by the plan is whether to reopen bear hunting. The plan doesn't call for this immediately, stating that while a "regulated harvest" has been a common way of managing bears, "we recognize that bear hunting in Florida is highly controversial." It recommends that state wildlife managers "explore options regarding bear hunting as a tool to stabilize populations and maintain them within target levels."

The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, which successfully sued to reopen bear hunting in New Jersey, this month urged its members to give the wildlife commission their opinion on the Florida bear plan, providing a link in its newsletter. Of the 90 comments posted as of Friday, 76 call for reopening hunting and six oppose it.

"The meat's good, the hide's good," said Newton Cook, a Tequesta hunter and executive director of United Waterfowlers of Florida, a duck-hunting group, who has hunted black bears in Canada.

He said hunting would be a sensible way to reduce particular bear populations, such as those in the Ocala and Osceola national forests. Already bears are disrupting deer hunting in some areas, he said, by snatching corn from feeders set up to attract deer.

"We've got more bears than we need in some areas, not in all areas, and they're a nuisance," said Cook. "You don't just open it up for everyone to go shoot one, you control it," he said. "Hunting is a legitimate sport, very important to maintaining the proper balance of both prey and predator in the wild."

A hunt would be carefully controlled, with seasons, bag limits and other regulations designed to make it sustainable, unlike the unregulated hunting that drove down bear numbers in the mid-20th century. But any move to open up hunting would be certain to face opposition from environmental and animal rights groups.

"I would think the outcry from the public would be hugely against bear hunting," said Macdonald, of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is still a threatened species, and we will not support hunting of a species whose future is still questionable."

David Telesco, bear management program coordinator for the state wildlife commission, said he thinks the state's bear population could sustain a controlled hunt, with restrictions, although he said he couldn't be sure without a formal study. Less clear, he said, is whether such a proposal would win public support.

"There are strident supporters for and against," he said. "We have to test the waters. We don't have a feel for what the general public would think."

Newcomers to South Florida are sometimes surprised to learn that these massive omnivores live just a 45-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach. But 800 or so bears live around Big Cypress National Preserve — a quick drive on Alligator Alley.

Since 2006 there have been at least nine incidents of human injuries from bears, generally scratches or puncture wounds when a bear is startled and tries to get away or when a person attempts to defend a dog or livestock. For example, when a Seminole County man startled a female and her cubs going through his garbage, the bear charged, he fell down and the bear ran onto him, scratching his legs and feet before running off.

Florida bears generally are peaceful behemoths. Although black bears in other states have killed people, there has not been a single documented, unprovoked attack by a Florida bear on a human being. And they eat an overwhelmingly vegan diet, 80 percent of their food coming from acorns, berries and other plant sources, with the rest consisting mostly of insects.

But as bear populations increase and suburbs expand, there have been more encounters with people. The number of bear reports — in garbage, yards or on streets — has risen from about 500 in 1998 to 3,275 last year.

"The bear-human conflict issue has really taken off," Telesco said. "We have a combination of a growing bear population and infringement on their habitat."

The worst area for road kills, garbage invasions and other human-bear conflicts is around the Ocala National Forest, home to up to 1,200 bears — more than twice the 500 or so left in the entire state in the 1950s.

Complaints about bears have risen dramatically, averaging 900 a year and outstripping the state's ability to respond, according to the draft plan. Nearly half of the state's road kills take place in and around the Ocala forest, with a motorcyclist killed in Marion County after a bear ran in front of him at night. And just as manatees often have scars from boat propellers, about 13 percent of bears captured during one study in Ocala had healed limb fractures, most likely from vehicles.

"They've filled Ocala and they've started spilling out," Telesco said.

Ocala is a prime place for the state to implement many measures proposed or contemplated in the plan. This includes setting up what the plan calls Bear Smart communities, with a public education program, bear-proof garbage cans and trash containers and other measures.

And the plan says that isolated bear populations, such as 20 or so bears that may remain at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast north of Tampa, should be connected to the Ocala population. According to the plan, even a single bear occasional wandering in from Ocala could enrich this population's gene pool.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4535.

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