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Black bears population is growing in number

FWC: Calls have greatly increased since 2002

Chad Gillis

Fort Myers News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA

Florida's black bear population is growing, bursting nearly at the seams in some areas as development encroaches farther and farther into their habitat.

Black bears once ranged across most of the eastern United States, but populations have collapsed in many areas as hunting and habitat loss have taken their tolls.

But the Florida population has been on the rebound the past 20 years, according to the volume of bear calls made by the public and by population estimates from biologists.

Bears calls to state wildlife managers have increased from 850 in 2001 to 6,734 in 2013, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records. That's more calls than there are bears here.

An estimate from 2015 shows there are about 4,050 black bears living in the Sunshine State. There hasn't been a new count yet.

The FWC is the state agency charged with protecting and managing black bear populations, and the agency divides the species into subpopulations.

Bears found south of Lake Okeechobee live in what's called the Big Cypress unit.

“(We) believe the bear subpopulation in the Big Cypress is doing well,” said Michelle Kerr, FWC spokeswoman. “In 2015, it was estimated at a thousand adults. This was up from the estimated 697 from 2002.”

FWC's 2019 black bear management plan estimated an annual growth of 12.2% for the South Florida bears.

The state plans this summer to start a five-year study of the black bear population here, Kerr said. Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said learning to live in bear country is key for helping to preserve the species.

She said “bear wise” communities are areas where bears live but where property owners used bear-proof trash cans and containers to avoid problems.

“It's gaining popularity and it's gaining legs here in Florida, and that's really important for management,” Budd said. “I think that having these communities follow the standards to help reduce conflict are really what we need to be seeing more of across the road.”

Budd said her group has been working with developments along Corkscrew Road in south Lee County to help residents there learn to better live with bears.

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“We're doing a follow-up to create a habitat and conservation plan for that area,” Budd said. “That area is so rapidly changing, and the landscape is changing from what it was recently in the past. We need to create a plan so that it can be developed by being compatible with wildlife travel and water flows.”

Budd said black bears are a charming, and that Floridians should make an effort to alongside these large critters.

“There is an innate attraction to these animals,” Budd said. “From the very beginning we have teddy bears and all these stories. And we want to be able to relate to them.”

Florida black bears are relatively small, but males can still grow to 600 pounds or more.

They eat just about anything that's easy to acquire, from fruits and berries to scavenged meals like a dead squirrel or bird.

Vehicle strikes are one of the leading causes of death.

Over the past decade, 246 car-related deaths were documented for bears living south of Lake Okeechobee, according to FWC records.

Budd said more travel corridors are need to help the bears travel from one foraging area to the next.

She said learning to tolerate bear behavior will go a long way toward preserving the species.

“I think that's the low-hanging fruit that can be implemented and can reduce the occurrences of bears coming into people's communities,” she said. “When you have trash and bird feeders, if you live on the interface of wild lands, we're developing land adjacent to where these animals live, so people are going to see them.”

Kerr said one key to protecting bears is to cut down on the number of human-bear conflicts, which often results when a new development is built in bear habitat.

“Challenges include managing human-bear con-flicts in an area with both increasing development and rising human population, and a growing and expanding bear subpopulation, as well as improving connectivity to bears in the (Big Cypress),” Kerr said. “(South)Florida is blessed with a large amount of conservation lands, including federal and stateowned lands and private conservation easements, as well as large working lands that provide other habitats.”

Kerr said bears are an umbrella species, that protecting their habitat also helps other species, some of which are listed as threatened or endangered.

“Programs to protect habitat for the endangered Florida panther will assist bears as well,” she said. “We track projected habitat loss and work with other agencies and developers on ways to minimize the impacts to bears and other wildlife.”

She said the state expects to see more humanbear conflicts in the future as Florida's population continues to grow at a time when the bear population is also flourishing.

“Additional development in areas occupied by bears may increase human-bear encounters, but when people adopt (bear safe) habits, like keeping garbage and other foods secure from bears, we can avoid increases in human-bear conflicts,” Kerr said.

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.

A black bear similar to this one was spotted Monday in two south Lee County communities

ANDREW WEST/THE NEWS-PRESS

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