The Florida Bear’s Search for the Bare Necessities
Black Bear encounters are on the rise as development projects replace natural Florida habitats
This increase in bear sightings leaves Floridians unsettled but these incidents are just a side effect of a much more frightening problem.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Florida was the nation’s fastest-growing state in 2022. This expanded human population has spilled over into what were once flourishing habitats. In the past two decades, Florida has experienced a 28% decrease in tree cover giving bears no choice but to adapt to newly civilized - deforested - spaces.
Friends, not Food
Black bears do not view humans as prey. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that “there have been no predatory bear attacks on people in Florida.”
Some data show that black bears have killed fewer than 100 people in the last century according to the North American Bear Center. At least one local official in Florida’s rural Panhandle is still concerned enough to posit a county-wide bear hunt in response to a perceived rise in bear encounters.
As of September, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had received 130 calls this year regarding bears in Franklin County, according to The Times in Apalachicola. This is a notable uptick in bear-related calls.
Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith attributes his county’s rise in bear interactions to Florida’s efforts to protect this species.
Black bears were removed from the list of Florida’s Threatened Species in 2012. Bears are protected by the Bear Conservation Rule, which requires proper state authorization in order to legally “pursue, hunt, molest, capture, or kill” a bear, according to the rule’s text.
This rule is part of the 200-page Florida Black Bear Management Plan created by the FWC to help manage and live alongside bear populations. This plan is comprehensive which makes it a great tool and reference point for legislators but not so great for the everyday citizen.
Get Wise to BearWise
Enter BearWise, an organization with a national reach dedicated to “helping people live responsibly with black bears” according to Linda Masterson. She serves as the communication and marketing director of the organization.
Masterson attributes people’s fear of bears to the bad press this species often gets.
“When journalists call bears ‘beasts,’ and ‘ferocious’ and whatever else, that's what people think,” she said.
Black bears are viewed as pests at best and monsters at worst. This reputation discourages any widespread attempt to understand bear ecology. As Masterson sees it “you don’t care about bears if you don’t understand them.”
One of the primary ecological benefits of bears in an ecosystem is seed distribution. Bears consume large quantities of seed-containing plants that are then distributed through their feces. Scientists look to bears as an indicator of the general health of their ecosystem. They are called an “umbrella” species. If a native habitat can support a healthy population of black bears, it can also support the lives of other species, such as the estimated 35,178 people in Wakulla County.
“When you conserve for bears, you conserve for everything,” Masterson said.
As Florida’s ever-growing human population continues to invade the state's shrinking wildlands, bears will be left with nowhere to hide.
“It’s people who create these problems,” Masterson said. “And it’s people who can solve them.”