Well, it’s that time of year when we get a lot of news about Florida black bears. They are getting into trash cans, coming into garages and even entering some of the area homes. Are they evolving? Has the human genome entered their system and they want to be like us humans? The answer to these questions is a resounding “no,” but let’s take a look at the “why” of so many sightings recently.
The only species of bear found in Florida would be the black bear. No grizzlies, no brown bears and definitely no polar bears are seen here. At this time in history there are only about 4,000 left in our state, and that does not include the approximate 1,500 cubs.
At one point in history it was estimated that nearly 11,000 black bears inhabited Florida. With the arrival of humans came the loss of habitat as development expanded. Hunted for food, and sometimes just for sport, their numbers declined quickly. By the 1970s only 300 bears were left in our state. Thanks to comprehensive management plans and conservation efforts, the population has increased.
As the numbers increased for some it seemed too many, too fast. In February of 2015 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission permitted a regulated and limited hunting period. Final details of this bear hunt were concluded in September 2015. That fall, 3,778 permits were sold over a three month period, at the time, that was more permits than there were bears to hunt!
On October 24 and 25, 2015 a total of 304 bears were hunted and killed. Regionally, 114 were killed in the Florida Panhandle, 143 around Ocala, 25 in Osceola and, close to home, 22 in the Big Cypress region.
This controlled hunt is just a dent in the death toll of these native mammals.
Since 2012 it is estimated that more than 230 bears are killed annually by automobile collisions, on average.
The Florida Black Bear is a subspecies of the American Black Bear and has ranged historically in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida. Their habitat is primarily areas containing woods and forests. The average male will weigh about 300 pounds and a full grown female will be half of that size. However, the largest male found in our state was 760 pounds and a female weighed in at nearly 400 pounds.
One of the reasons so many bears are being seen in residential areas right now is because it is breeding season. This occurs from mid-June to mid-August. Black bears experience a very unique program known as “delayed implantation.” Once a fertilized egg divides a few times it actually ceases to develop, floating in the uterus. These eggs do not implant until very late fall. The reason for this… cubs will now be born to coincide with annual food availability. The more abundant food is when the young are born, a higher success rate for survival is now in place.
Cubs will weigh about 12 ounces at birth but will gain nearly one pound per week before first leaving their birth area after 10 weeks. The young will stay by mom until 15-17 months old and females will become physically mature and able to produce their own young at three to four years of age.
About 80% of a Florida black bear’s diet is plant based; fruits, nuts, berries. Fifteen percent of their food is termites, ants, and other insects and the final 5% would be small animals such as possums, armadillos and carrion (road kill). For the most part they are shy and, as such, humans are not on their menu. However, any provoked bear could be a dangerous bear, so always be cautious in the presence of any wild animals.
Bob is a Florida Master Naturalist working with a dolphin survey team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books, available locally, and a regular speaker at area venues. Bob loves his wife very much!