The Beautiful And Intelligent Florida Native: Black Bears Mike Orlando Assistant Coordinator – Bear Management Program Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission

Oct 03, 16 The Beautiful And Intelligent Florida Native: Black Bears  Mike Orlando Assistant Coordinator – Bear Management Program Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission

By: Nancy Dale

Since 1980, Florida’s native black bear population has been expanding, estimated, by Florida Fish and Wildlife to number approximately 4,350.  The same year, the human population in Florida numbered 5 million; in 2016, the population grew to 20 million with an expected growth by 2060 to 36 million people. Today, bears and people are living in close proximity but Florida’s black bears still live in the sand pine wilderness, forests, oak scrub, and wetlands, adapting to the encroachment of humans into their native habitat.  It is not the bears that pose the greatest threat to their survival; it is human behavior.

After the last Ice Age, eleven thousand years ago, Paleo-Indians occupied much of Florida.  Their descendants, the tattooed Timucua Indians, fished and hunted along the upward flowing St. John’s River on Florida’s northeast coast and inland to the Wekiwa River.  Today, one of the most beautiful bear habitats in Florida is Wekiwa Springs State Park, Apopka, Fl, about 20 miles north of Orlando and the origin of a spring that pumps 42 million gallons of water a day into the Wekiwa River from a deep 15 to 20 foot cavern.  The Wekiwa Springs River runs through Wekiwa Springs State Park and is one of the last remaining wild and scenic rivers in Florida.

Today, Wekiwa Springs State Park, originally a private Sportsman’s Club in 1941, is a large tourist attraction with camping, swimming, canoeing, biking, hiking and horseback riding through the 100 year old pine forest flats.  As the sun rises and dusk veils the forest, visitors can observe white tail deer, wild turkeys, the little known Sherman’s fox squirrel and the dark profile of Florida’s black bear peacefully roaming through the woods.

Mike Orlando, Assistant Coordinator of the Bear Management Program, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says, “The Park is one of the best protected habitats for the black bear to safely survive.”  He dispels the widely held belief that the growing human population in Florida imperils the black bear, as he says, “they have recovered.  It is not true that as the population grows, natural species necessarily decrease.  Today, better education of tourists, residents and good management practices like habitat management has helped the black bear and other wildlife thrive.

For the past twenty years, Orlando has studied the behavior of the Florida black bear, one of the most curious and wondrous species in Florida.  He says, “The male bears have a territorial area of sixty square miles and females, a smaller range of fifteen square miles.”

Bears apopka wekiwa sprgs st park

Bears apopka wekiwa sprgs st park

At Wekiwa Springs State Park, a housing development butts directly up to the edge.  Orlando calls this a “transitional zone or urban wildlife interface.”  People who live in the residential community are educated to co-exist with their bear neighbors.  However, Orlando brings up a caveat:  “Bears have a keen sense of smell, so residents not only living directly on the park border but the neighborhood need to follow safety procedures to divert an opportunistic bear hunting for food.   It is important to move any eminent food from the area.  In order to save the bear, humans need to be careful not to create life conflicts.  If a bear approaches a neighborhood, it is likely seeking available unsecured human food,” Orlando clarifies.

“In January or February,” says Orlando, “Female bears, about 3 years old, usually bare their young.  They may  pull together pine needles or fallen trees, whatever is around to build a den like a bird’s nest, and some even dig a hole.  Females usually have 2 or 3 cubs.  The females protect the cubs, teach them how to survive and find food.  If the mother bear learns there is food available in a neighborhood, she will also teach her cubs where to find it.”  FWC literature says if a bear is eating something on your property, take note of what it is and secure it after the bear has left the area.  In Florida, it is against the law to feed bears.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has developed a “cost share program” to help residents afford bear resistant containers.  Residents can purchase “bear proof dumpsters” for their area like the ones at Wekiwa Springs State Park.  Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring has numerous bear sightings and is also installing the new dumpsters.  However, despite the closer proximity of bears and humans, Orlando says, “Bears usually withdraw from an accidental confrontation with humans; however, they are wild animals and deserve respect.

Bear whistles giving to kids

Bear whistles giving to kids

“The best precaution to co-exist in a bear habitat,” says Orlando “is to keep attractants away from bears. If a bear is up a tree, usually after dark, it will eventually leave the area on its own when it feels safe.  People sometimes mistake bear ‘posturing’ like standing up on its hind legs as a threat,” he explains.  “The bear behaves like a squirrel. When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is only trying to get a better view or scent.  However, unlike squirrels, bears are powerful.  Males can weigh on an average 250-350 pounds; females, 130-180 pounds.  Because of their power and size, people should respect these animals and stay at a safe distance.

Orlando stresses that “pro-active” human behavior is essential to protect bears and all native wildlife.  As people continue to migrate into the sunshine state, bear and people encounters in the woods or in neighborhoods will continue; however, Orlando emphasizes, “People can learn to co-exist with Nature and appreciate the bear.”

“Bears are symbols of the wilderness.  We provide information and teach our visitors about bear behavior, we go to schools and take a bear hide from one accidentally killed on the highway to show children.  We hand out bear whistles and clappers to kids and adults to scare a bear away should there be an encounter.  Most importantly, if we appreciate the natural world and realize we are inherently connected with Nature, we as humans will learn to appreciate the life of wild things in preserving Florida’s wildlife.  We are a living planet and we need to teach a balance of human behavior with Nature exploration.  We have to do our part to save the bear.”

In 2016, FWC provided Florida residents the opportunity for input on the next planned bear hunt.  The Commission was presented with four options to consider as recommended by staff at FWC and biologists.  Each option outlined a different strategy.  Option 1,  was “the same as the 2015 framework with updated hunt objectives;” Option 2 offered more “limited restrictions on hunting bears;” Option 3 offered “a postponement of bear hunting in 2016, creating a zero-hunt objective;” Option 4, opted “to repeal bear hunt rules and not allow bear hunting in Florida in future years.”  The result was no bear hunting for 2016.

Mike Orlando has been studying bears since college.  He earned his BA degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida and later his Master’s in “Forest Ecology” at the University of Kentucky.  At UF his study of alligators migrated to a bear project at Egland Air Force Base when he worked with graduate students placing radio collars on bears.  At Weeki Wachee Springs on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Orlando expanded his focus on bear behavior which led him to his present position as the FWC Assistant Coordinator of the Bear Management Program.

Bears and Nancy Dale

Bears and Nancy Dale

Dr. Nancy Dale is the author of 5 books on the true stories of Florida’s legendary pioneer “cow hunters.” UPCOMING BOOK:  PRESERVING NATIVE FLORIDA:  THE LEGENDS, THE WILDERNESS AND THE WILDLIFE.  Books are available: www.nancydalephd.com,

Lake Placid: Lake Placid Feed and Western Wear, Sebring/Avon Park:  Sebring Ranch Supply, Pure Grit Boot Company, SFSC Museum of Art and Culture, Okeechobee: Fantasy Lighting, Big Lake Growers Assn. Wauchula/Zolfo Springs:  Peace River Expedition, Hardee Ranch Supply.

 
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