By DOTTY NIST
Community members recently received details on— and an invitation to assist with— a Bear Management Unit (BMU) encompassing a five-county area that includes Walton County. The West Panhandle Bear Management Unit one of seven such units that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has created statewide.
The information was provided locally at a public meeting hosted by the FWC on Oct. 29 at the Coastal Branch Library in Santa Rosa Beach.
Directed by a seven-member board appointed by the governor, the FWC is responsible for management of the state’s fish and wildlife.
At the Oct. 29 meeting, attendees were updated on the status of the native Florida black bear, which is the state’s largest mammal and its only bear species.
Florida’s black bear population has been on the rise in most areas of the state since the 1980s. Their population had dwindled to approximately 300 in the 1970s, resulting in the Florida black bear being listed as a State Threatened Species in 1974.
The state’s black bears are now reported to number more than 3,000, with bears inhabiting forests and swamps from Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle to the Ocala National Forest to big Cypress National Preserve in Southwest Florida. In August 2012, the FWC’s commissioners approved the removal of the black bear from the threatened species list.
This good fortune for bears and for wildlife enthusiasts has been accompanied with challenges associated with people encountering bears more often, in the midst of the expansion of both human and bear populations.
One of the goals of the BMUs is related to these interactions. The BMUs are to work in partnership with the community to increase understanding of bears and encourage actions to reduce human-bear conflicts.
Other BMU goals will be to work with the FWC to manage bears, based on specific information on bear and human populations, and to gather public input on managing and conserving bears in each area.
The BMUs are part of a 10-year Florida Black Bear Management Plan that was approved in conjunction with the removal of the black bear from the threatened list. Also approved by the FWC in 2012 was a rule holding that it is illegal to injure or kill a bear, possess or sell bear parts.
Along with reducing human-bear conflicts, bear habitat fragmentation, and bear deaths from being hit by vehicles, another goal of the management plan for the Western Panhandle BMU will be to maintain a black bear population of at least 200 within the five-county area, along with the habitat that those bears will require. The current estimate for the bear population in that area is estimated at between 63 and 101.
People attending the Oct. 29 public meeting were invited to sign up to receive information on and, if they so choose, participate in a Bear Stakeholder Group that will provide input to the Western Panhandle BMU, which includes Escambia, Holmes, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. This will be the first such group for the state, attendees were told.
Potential BSG members may include homeowners’ association representatives, businesses, government officials, interested residents, and representatives of state and federal agencies. The BSG is to meet multiple times each year for discussion of bear issues and to identify methods of reducing interaction between humans and bears.
After a brief initial presentation, attendees at the meeting were divided into four smaller groups that were rotated to different parts of the meeting room, where various FWC staff members asked for their input on bears and bear management and engaged in discussion with the groups. Input from attendees became public record to be provided to county commissioners at a future date.
The groups then recombined and participated in a question and answer session.
Dave Telesco, bear management coordinator for the FWC, told attendees that, apart from being able to get food, bears do not want to be around people. Bears become a problem only when they are being fed, either intentionally or unintentionally, as when they get access to food in trash cans, Telesco explained.
Bear-resistant trash cans are available but cost about $200 more than ordinary trash cans. In Okaloosa and Santa Rosa Counties, waste collection companies offer this option to customers but charge from $5.31 to $15 extra per month for this type of trash can.
Information on the Florida black bear and the FWC’s management and conservation efforts is available on the organization’s web site—and citizens can also contact the FWC for help with bear problems or to report a sick or injured bear. The web site address is www.myfwc.com, and the FWC may be contacted by phone at (850) 488-4676.
By DOTTY NIST