Instead of hunt, Florida bear-proofs its trash

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking for ways to curb the dramatic increase in human-bear encounters without another controversial black bear hunt. 

James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times/AP
A black bear lounges in a tree in a neighborhood near Adventure Island in Tampa, Fla. on June 21. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking for ways to curb the increase in human-bear encounters without another controversial black bear hunt.

Wildlife officials in Florida have given up on plans for a second bear hunt in the fall and decided, at least for now, to search for other means to improve tension-filled ursine relations.

Almost from the moment they left the Endangered Species list, the Florida black bears have troubled the state's wildlife officials. Although bringing the population back from several hundred in the 1970s to an estimated 4,350 has been hailed as a conservation success, keeping the now-flourishing bear population from straying too close to humans has proved an equally fraught challenge.

"Bear conflicts are out there. They're real and they're growing," said Brian Yablonski, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner who argued unsuccessfully in favor of a 2016 bear hunt, according to the News-Press. "But that's a sign of robust health with our bear population. But unfortunately it gives us a complicated problem, and we're trying to solve it."

The nation's third most-populous state receives more than 6,000 complaints each year about bears straying too close to humans, compared to only hundreds of these complaints a decade ago.  

Such problems, coming so soon after the black bears left the Endangered Species list in 2012, raises a question about how narrow the margin for Florida's bear population really is. The question echoes nationwide, as previously endangered animals re-emerge successfully from decades of conservation work.

"The same issue confronts urban areas across the country," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April:

In 2012, one ecologist estimated that there were around 2,000 coyotes roaming the streets of Chicago. The expansion of human settlement and a corresponding rise in urban wildlife populations bring challenges for city and state officials, who are forced to make decisions about how to coexist, or not, with these animals.

Officials tried to cull the population with a bear hunt in 2015, but the hunt attracted so many protests from environmentalists and individuals that Florida's wildlife commissioners voted 4 to 3 last month against another hunt in 2016. 

With the hunt off the table, wildlife officials are taking proposals to solve the bear problems, and $825,000 is on the line for possible programs. Although the possibility of a hunt remains open for 2017, groups have until October to make alternative suggestions.

One suggestion already in the works is garbage control, as the smell of discarded food scraps can lure bears into a campsites or residential areas – and into trouble. Bear-proof trash cans, already the norm around bear habitats in many Western states, could offer a preventative solution for many of Florida's problems.  

Without such trash cans, "We've basically invited the bears to dinner," Laura Bevan, the Humane Society of the United States' southern region director, told the Monitor in April. 

Seminole and Lake County in Florida have already passed measures requiring locals to lock up their garbage and food or face fines, the Monitor reported. Such measures are more expensive, but they also strike at the cause of most problems between humans and bears, wildlife officials say.

"Bears are amazingly tolerant and shy around people for the most part," Thomas Eason, director of habitat and species conservation in Florida told the Naples Daily News. "It's when food becomes readily available [that] they get lured into human use areas. First they show up as sightings and they stay in that area because they're being rewarded."

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