New group considers how to manage South Florida’s wild bears

It might come as a surprise to some residents, but black bears do live in South Florida. Most of them hang out in the densely wooded wilderness of the Big Cypress and Fakahatchee Strand northwest of the Miami-Dade/Broward metropolitan area.

Occasionally, a wayward bear will lumber into populated Weston, causing all sorts of consternation.

As Florida’s population of black bears grows and expands, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking for ways to manage and conserve the large, native mammals. And the agency is seeking help from the public to offer opinions and suggestions for better living with bears.

FWC representatives, including southeast regional director Chuck Collins, met with about 80 South Florida residents Wednesday in Sunrise to listen, learn and try to recruit members for a bear stakeholder group that would meet several times a year to discuss bear issues in the newly created South Bear Management Unit, which includes Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Palm Beach, Collier, Hendry and Lee counties. The remainder of the state is divided into six BMUs — all following the same protocols.

Collins and his colleagues assured audience members that their input would reach the highest levels of the wildlife commission.

“We’re here to get ideas from you on how to manage this bear population,” Collins said. “We can’t come up with all the ideas. We need ideas from the public.”

The FWC staffers said their biggest headaches are human-bear conflicts that arise from residents leaving open trash cans, pet food bowls, bird seed and rotten fruit on their property. Bears become too familiar with people and help themselves to whatever is available to eat.

Although there has never been a fatal bear attack on a human recorded in Florida, there have been some dangerous encounters, including the April case of a Lake Mary woman mauled by a bear in her yard. Wildlife officers said they were forced to put down seven bears following the attack. One of the victim’s neighbors, along with two other Seminole County residents, have been charged with illegally feeding bears.

“If you educate the masses on how to live with bears, more than half the problem is solved,” FWC wildlife biologist Mike Orlando said.

Audience members were given several questionnaires to complete, asking things such as whether they would be willing to make extra efforts to make trash containers bear-proof; whether they believe nuisance bears should be euthanized, relocated or just left alone; and other bear-related questions.

The audience definitely appeared to be pro-bear. Several members said they had heard the FWC was considering allowing bear hunting in Florida.

“Give the bear the gun,” one woman suggested.

Several people in the crowd said that climate change and shrinking habitat from over development pose the biggest threats to Florida bears, which need vast areas to roam and reproduce. Another woman suggested mounting a “Smoky the Bear” public-relations campaign to educate residents about “what to do when they see a bear and steer them away from killing the bear.”

FWC personnel assured the gathering there are no plans to allow bear hunting in Florida and that they are simply in the information-gathering stage.

“Bears are a resource,” Orlando said. “You, as the public, are owners of the bears. Our agency is the steward of the bears. We want your opinion.”

To join the South Florida bear stakeholder group, email Kaitlin O’Connell at BearPlan@MyFwc.com.