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Managing Florida's Bears

Recent attack highlights importance of the FWC's bear plan

By: Cash Lambert, OutdoorChannel.com

A recent bear attack in Florida’s Seminole county couldn’t come at a more pivotal time for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

On Saturday, April 12, Terri Frana walked outside of her house in an upscale residential area near Lake Mary, north of Orlando. The 45-year-old saw several bears rummaging through the trash. One of the bears, weighing 200 pounds, reportedly pounced on her, dragging her toward the woods. She was able to escape, and later treated for several bites and cuts at a local hospital. She was resting at home Sunday.

It’s the most recent attack since late 2013, when a Longwood woman – residing just outside of Orlando – was attacked while walking her dogs. The attack on Frana comes just as FWC officials are touring the state, holding public meetings and listening to the concerns of local residents in regards to the Bear Management Plan, which was passed in 2012.

The plan divides the state into manageable bear population regions, and aims to “maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and people.”

The FWC wrapped up public meetings with the central Florida region in late March, and it has plans to visit all 7 regions in the year.

“The meetings are different from your average public meetings,” said Caitlin O’Connor, a bear stakeholder group coordinator for the FWC Commission. “Rather than us talking, it’s us listening. We’re trying to maximize the time we have with public.

“Even in those short hour and a half meetings, we get great ideas from public. What we’re really trying to do is get stakeholder groups to make movements presevering the habitat. Our goal is to make sure they feel they were involved.”

The Management Plan came to fruition out of necessity. In 1970, Florida had as few as 300 bears, according to the FWC, and the animal was listed as a State Threatened Species. After preservation and conservation, that number currently sits at 3,000 and the listing has been removed.

But therein lies the issue that the FWC is attempting to alleviate with the public meetings: how to raise the bear population to a healthy number, but prevent bear-human encounters, such as Frana’s?

“Bears can control their own population,” O’Connor said. “The number one killer of bears is other bears. Large males tend to take out other cubs. It can be a controlled population in general, but the problem is all these attractants.”

These attractants, for the majority, are garbage cans. According to Dave Telesco, who heads the FWC’s bear management program, “if the bears can’t get their food from garbage in a neighborhood, they don’t have a reason to be there.”

For residents in such areas, securing trash bins is essential. That’s exactly what the bears were after in Frana’s garage. In Leon County, which encompasses Tallahassee, officials are currently offering free bear-resistant garbage cans for three months to 100 county residents.

“Many residents in other counties have used bear-resistant garbage cans with great success,” Telesco said. “One community in Okaloosa County had a 70-percent drop in human-bear conflicts once they all switched to bear-resistant containers.”

Because housing development is pushing further and further into the woods, bear sightings have more become commonplace.

“Bears are usually moving out of habitat when they find trash or chicken coops, anything that smells good,” O’Connor said. “That’s what a bear is going after. It’s like a McDonald’s drive-thru for them.”

But the specialized garbage cans can be hundreds of dollars – a fee that some residents can’t afford to pay for something to put garbage in.

Managing Florida’s Bears

O’Connor explained that a step the FWC is taking is to conduct “a population estimate this summer. The current estimate is 10 years old. We’ll know how many bears we’ll have, and in terms of the numbers, it’s not something we can discuss right now.”

If the bear population continued to skyrocket, O’Conner said that hunts are “not out of the realm of possibilities. Not every population can be hunted; some have less than 200 bears – but if we did, we would do so responsibly.”

It’s also a decision that partly sits with the community. In the public meetings thus far, O’Conner has seen a “mixture” of opinions, but for the most part, “everyone’s on the same page.”

“Hunters don’t want bears to go extinct; they want to conserve them for their children and their children’s children,” she said. “The grand scheme is to keep bears around for the future, and to see the two groups we’ve seen on the same side.”

On Monday, the FWC captured a bear that approached staff as they were on the scene of Sunday’s attack. Because this bear showed no fear of people, staff determined that it was a threat to public safety and needed to be put down.

"The fact that we have come across so many bears with so little fear of humans indicates that these bears are highly habituated and are regularly receiving food from people," Telesco said. “Our staff is dedicated to wildlife conservation. Having to put down these bears is a very difficult decision, but it's the right decision to ensure public safety. Unfortunately, the saying is true: 'a fed bear is a dead bear.'"

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