The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday adopted its first management plan for the black bear and removed Floridas largest land mammal from the state list of threatened species.
FWC wildlife biologists say Floridas black bear population has grown from a few hundred in the 1970s to more than 3,000 today despite an average of more than 100 animals being killed on roads each year.
The 10-year plan which takes effect in August aims to conserve black bears in suitable habitats, such as woodlands, prairies and swamps, with local residents helping with decision-making.
Its a statewide framework that establishes seven management units stretching from South Floridas Big Cypress National Preserve to the western Panhandle where there are distinct bear subpopulations. The goal is to maintain a sustainable population by increasing bear numbers in low-density areas with less than 200 bears and keeping at least one bear-heavy region, such as Ocala National Forest, at more than 1,000 animals.
The plan continues the statewide prohibition on bear hunting, and makes harming or molesting the animals a misdemeanor.
Commissioner Ron Bergeron, of Weston, said the best thing Florida can do to protect bears is to conserve the lands where they roam with a wildlife corridor running the length of the state, and limit their interactions with cars by constructing highway underpasses.
I love the bear, Bergeron said at the commission meeting in Palm Beach Gardens. Everyone in here really cares. We need to expand upon the various habitats through conservation easements and prioritize these types of protection.
While no one in the audience at the PGA National Resort disagreed with him, several members of environmental and animal-rights groups said it is too soon to de-list the black bear.
Were not there yet, said Sierra Club member Drew Martin. These bear populations are isolated. Florida is not at a static state when it comes to increasing development and losing bear habitat. Move forward with the management plan, but maintain the bear as threatened.
Other speakers worried that downgrading penalties for harming bears to a misdemeanor would lead to more poaching, while the budget-strapped FWC doesnt have enough money for enforcement.
A ridiculous decision, declared Matthew Schwartz, founder of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
But Commissioner Brian Yablonski insisted bears will not lose protection: Were still the caretakers. Were still on top of this.
Commission chair Kathy Barco put Floridians on notice that as the bear population expands, there will be more interactions with people and people need to adapt.
Said Barco: This is a success story. But theres a huge disconnect: People want bears, but not in their yard. Why do I have to change the way I live? At some point, you have to learn to live with these guys.