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Florida bear deaths climbing dramatically

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is asking for help in identifying who killed a Florida black bear near Shady Grove in Taylor County in late December.

FWC Officer Andy Bickel responded to a report of a dead bear found on a single-lane bridge on Donaldson Bridge Road on Dec. 28. The juvenile female bear weighed approximately 70 pounds and had been shot with a firearm.

Bear hunting was discontinued in 1994, and the Florida black bear is currently listed as “threatened” (except in Columbia and Baker counties and Apalachicola National Forest, but there is no hunting season). It is illegal to hunt bears in Florida – a third-degree felony, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to five years in jail.

According to the FWC (Sept. 17, 2008) there are approximately 2,500-3,000 bears in the state, the majority of which are on public lands. Incoming bear calls to FWC have spiked in recent years, climbing from as low as 90 calls in 1995 to an all-time record high of 2,149 in 2006. Vehicle-caused bear deaths have also risen dramatically, from just 35 in 1992 to 141 in 2005 and 136 in 2006.

The number of “conflict” bears killed or euthanized by the FWC has also skyrocketed, with none killed from 1987-2000 (13 years) to 20 in 2007. There has also been a marked increase in illegal bear killings, with the FWC investigating a rash of cases (see “FWC Bear Cases” on next page).

The FWC is asking for the public’s help in determining who killed the Florida black bear near Shady Grove in Taylor County on Dec. 28, 2008. Anyone with information can call the toll-free Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000 if the information leads to an arrest. Anyone can also go online at MyFWC.com/law/alert/ or call Lt. Bruce Cooper at 850-672-0376.

Despite the rise in bear calls, vehicle deaths and killings, FWC staff is “not recommending a regulated bear harvest at this time, given the current threatened status, limited agency resources and more pressing conservation priorities.

“Prior to consideration of a harvest for bears in Florida, we need to develop an overall management plan for the conservation of bears. The development of a plan will include wide public participation and involvement of stakeholders. This will no doubt be an issue that many citizens will feel passionately about, and we hope we can develop a plan that has broad public support across the state,” the FWC states.

The FWC has chartered a Bear Action Team to develop a draft management plan for bears in Florida. The team developed an initial draft, got informal feedback from interested stakeholders, and the plan is currently being revised.

“Consideration of again allowing a bear hunt has FWC resource implications. Additional data and analysis are needed to determine which populations could support a sustainable hunt and what parameters, (number taken, season taken, size and age class) would result in a sustainable harvest,” the FWC says,

If implemented, a hunt will take FWC resources to manage and collect monitoring data to assess the biological impacts. The FWC says it is taking steps to investigate public attitudes, opinions and perceptions regarding bears and bear management because understanding the human dimensions element will be critical in developing sound public policy for bear conservation and management.

Hunting will not “solve” most bear problems in Florida, as bears that create problems for people are not the same bears that would be targeted for harvest (generally taken from more remote locations like WMAs, national forests, etc.).

Evidence has shown that human/bear conflicts will occur whenever there is an available resource, regardless of bear population sizes and harvest levels. There was a day in the not-too-distant past when it was rare for black bears in Florida to venture into urban areas, but that is no longer the case. Now, it’s almost a daily occurrence, due to an increasing bear population, ever-expanding development and the population boom in Florida.

The biggest key to living with bears, says FWC wildlife biologist Allan Hallman, is to make sure you don’t leave anything outside that bears will eat. “If you live in an area where you know you have bears or have experienced problems in the past, don’t leave things out like garbage or excess pet food. Garbage cans need to be secured or brought into a garage,” Hallman said.

Some common attractants are pet food, dirty barbeque grills, bird/wildlife feeders, livestock feed, compost piles, beehives, fruit- and nut-bearing trees and garbage.”