The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is seeking volunteers to join the discussion on how to manage bears in this portion of the Panhandle.

On Thursday, May 15, 15 local residents met with an equal number of FWC employees to talk about bears. On entering the meeting, attendees were asked to complete a form indicating whether they would serve on a regional Black Bear Stakeholder Committee.

Although organizers were proactive in warning participants to keep voices low and strong emotions under control, most attendees were, basically, pro-bear and the discussion remained calm.

Kaitlin O’Connell, FWC’s black bear stakeholder coordinator, opened the meeting with a general introduction to Florida bears. Since being listed as endangered in 1974, Florida black bears made such a remarkable recovery they were delisted in 2012, which was the peak year for calls about human/bear interactions, she said. FWC received 975 calls, with an unknown number fielded by law enforcement, animal control and other local agencies.

That same year, FWC passed a 10-year bear management plan that created seven Bear Management Units (BMU). The Central Unit is the largest with just over 1,000 bears. Franklin County lies within the East Panhandle Unit, which has proposed population of 570 bears.

O’Connell told attendees the meeting was an effort to understand area residents’ attitude towards bears. She said each of the seven BMUs is different and residents of each view bear interactions differently.

“We want to make sure you enjoy the bears as much as the bears enjoy being in Florida,” she said.

Different attendees gave different reasons for a coming to the meeting.  

Jim Halpin who recently moved to Carrabelle said he came out of curiosity. “I’ve had to pick up my trash twice,” he said.

Patrick Dwyer of Sopchoppy is a hunter, who said most of his contact with bears had been neutral. “I hunt over in Taylor County on a lease and we’ve been having a lot of interaction with bears,” he said. “I’m interested in hearing what (FWC) has to say. We are allowed to bait for hogs and the bears have been damaging our feeders but we’ve got that figured out.”

John Hitron, of Carrabelle, was even more positive about living with bears. “I have 10 years of experience living with brown bears on the west coast, and 20 years of experience with black bears. If I speak out at all, it will be on behalf of the bears,” he said.

David Butler, of Lanark Village, called the bear population an ecotourism opportunity and encouraged cooperation.  He suggested establishing a bear viewing station for tourists. “Until we can get everybody working with the plan, we won’t be able to recreate this barrier” between bear and humans he said.

After the initial introduction, attendees split into two small groups to discuss the role of bears in Florida, the role of FWC and what everyone can do to coexist comfortably with bears.

Several recurrent themes emerged during the conversations.

“Trash service should be mandatory and, in bear hot spots, bear-proof trashcans ought to be mandatory,” said Kathy Swaggerty, of Lanark Village. “Once we got a bear-proof can, we never have a bear to get in our garbage anymore.”

She asked what sanctions can be brought against people who feed bears.

Bear biologist David Telesco said there is a law against feeding bears and raccoons but law enforcement officers and court officials are slow to enforce it. He said bear-proof trash containers reduce foraging by 95 percent and most bear-proof container failures he investigated were the result of user error. Telesco said interactions involving bears passing through a yard or treed in a residential area are often the result of bears traveling to garbage they know is unsecured at an adjacent property.

Several members of the audience asked why euthanized bears were not sold for meat and pelts, and were told it was against FWC policy.

Halpin asked about controlling populations with birth control. O’Connell said the technique has been investigated but is not yet economically viable.

Telesco said that, in light of increased interaction, there has been increased talk about sanctions on feeding or luring bears and about the possibility of bringing charges against individuals who feed or lure bears that are later implicated in negative interactions with humans.

“Education is better than legislation,” he said.

FWC representatives said they would reevaluate the size of the bear population next year. Telesco said a discussion of hunting may be back on the table after that is completed.

He said people need to understand that, while bears normally seek to avoid humans, they are large animals that can hurt you, even unintentionally.

O’Connell said she hopes to form the stakeholder committee for the eastern Panhandle by the end of July. She said the group would likely meet four times a year, for two to three hours.

If you are interested in serving on this committee, please contact Kaitlin O’Connell at BEARPLAN