It’s been nearly eight years since the last state-sanctioned bear hunt, and Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said Florida needs to find solutions as encounters between the animals and humans are increasing.
“We need to look at some different ways of doing things,” Smith told The News Service of Florida on Monday.
During the past few weeks, a woman in the rural Gulf Coast county southwest of Tallahassee had to lock herself inside a bedroom as a bear broke into her home. In a separate incident, a woman was trapped in a car by a large black bear.
More attention went to a bear spotted last week in a tree at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Central Florida. The bear was quickly captured with the aid of a local TV station’s helicopter and relocated to the Ocala National Forest.
“I'm not a bear biologist, but you know we keep having bear (incidents),” Smith said. “The old way is to keep your garbage picked up, which I agree with. We’ve got to do the best we can with our garbage. But ‘get a whistle,’ ‘we'll send you a pamphlet,’ I mean that kind of stuff is not going to do anything because we have a much larger bear population because we've been protecting bears for so long.”
Smith last week requested Gov. Ron DeSantis set up a meeting with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials to discuss what he called the agency’s “mismanagement” of bears in the East Panhandle Bear Management Unit, which includes Franklin County.
“This county and the citizens that I serve are being inundated and overrun by the bear population,” Smith wrote. “There are senior citizens, mothers with small children, and families with livestock and pets that are afraid to utilize the private and public lands of this county.”
A meeting has been set for Thursday.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is headed by seven commissioners who are appointed by DeSantis. The panel is scheduled to meet Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 in Jensen Beach, but the agenda doesn’t include a discussion on bears.
Earlier this year, commissioners requested staff members present an update on black bears. But without a finalized update, officials confirmed in July a hunt wouldn’t occur this year.
Bear hunts have long been controversial in Florida. Concerns that a discussion of a hunt might be on the agenda drew animal-rights advocates to a July meeting in St. Petersburg.
Asked Friday about Smith’s request to DeSantis, commission spokeswoman Lisa Thompson pointed to the “BearWise” program and said bear-management staff members are active in Franklin County.
“FWC staff are working closely with the community and local officials on solutions to help them address any human/bear conflicts and will continue to be a resource for assistance,” Thompson said in an email.
BearWise outlines steps to reduce human interactions with bears, such as telling people not to feed bears, to clear grills, make trash less accessible, remove bird feeders when bears are active and to not leave pet food outside.
The commission last approved a bear hunt in 2015, the first in more than two decades. The hunt was promoted as slowing an increase of bears in the state and reducing dangerous interactions between bears and humans.
The 2015 hunt was set to last a week in four areas of the state, with 320 bears expected to be killed. Instead, the hunt was called off after two days as the bear death count quickly reached 304.
Smith said better regulations could be approved for any future hunt, with an emphasis on protecting cubs and mothers.
Smith also noted that bear-proof trash containers, which can cost more than $300, are expensive for many in his community.
Legislative funding for the BearWise program, created after the 2015 hunt in part to help counties and cities get residents and businesses bear-proof trash containers, was scrapped after three years.
The commission in 2019 approved a 10-year plan for bears that primarily stresses using education and non-lethal techniques to manage the animals.
Under the plan, hunting remains an option if interactions between bears and humans escalate amid the increasing number of people in the state.
Thompson noted that bears are consuming more calories to pack on fat reserves for the winter.
“Adult bears need to consume approximately 20,000 calories a day during the fall, meaning they are more active while in search of food,” Thompson wrote in the email. “If given the opportunity, bears will take advantage of easy meals from things like unsecured trash cans and bird feeders.”
Smith said parks and other protected areas in Franklin County have allowed the bear population to thrive. The county, for example, includes state parks and parts of the Apalachicola National Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest.
“People up here are like, ‘Oh, if we were Disney World, we’d have gotten our bear problem handled,’” Smith said.
As of 2017, the commission estimated Florida had 4,050 black bears, an estimate that remains on the commission website.
Over the past five years, the state has averaged 5,765 calls a year about bears, according to the commission. In 2022 there were 5,907 calls, up from 5,738 in 2021.
This is a free News Service story for City & State readers. For more comprehensive and in-depth political and policy news, consider a subscription, beginning with a 10-day free trial. Click here to sign up!