The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a workshop last Tuesday at the Gulf Coast State College Gulf/Franklin Campus to raise awareness for bear management units that would soon be put in place across the state.
The FWC has grouped Florida into seven sections with plans to create a bear stakeholder group within each one. Gulf County falls under the East Panhandle section, which also covers the counties of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, Wakulla and Washington.
The remaining areas are based in the West Panhandle, Big Bend, North, Central, South Central and South units.
The meeting was an open forum for residents to provide thoughts about bear management but also to present common problems and possible solutions. The quorums will help the FWC work with local and state governments to create solutions based on each area’s need.
“It gives people an opportunity to give input,” said Dave Telesco, a bear management program coordinator.
An example of the need stems from the North Florida Child Development on Field of Dreams Drive in Port St. Joe. Due to the lack of a bear-proof dumpster, the animals are constantly bypassing the makeshift locks pulling food, diapers and other waste into the woods surrounding the facility.
The bear management units would work with local government in an attempt to ensure that bear-proof items were made readily available to ensure safety and keep pollution at bay.
The most common bear in the area is the black bear and the FWC’s goal is to create one well-managed population of the breed rather than seven sub-populations throughout the state.
Bear conflict statistics presented showed an increase over the past several years and both people and bear populations continue to rise in Florida.
Last year, the FWC received more than 900 calls about bear conflicts and an average of 50 bears is killed each year along U.S. Highway 98. The black bears hunt at dawn and dusk and a lack of clear shoulder along the road makes it difficult for drivers to see the animals. While black bears are not naturally aggressive, the problems begin when they become used to people.
“The goal is to maintain a sustainable black bear population for the benefit of the species and the people,” said Kaitlin O’Connell, a stakeholder liaison. “By coming to this meeting, attendees have the undivided attention of the FWC.”
The bear stakeholder groups are drafted on a volunteer basis and the FWC is specifically interested in input from local residents, homeowner associations, businesses and civic groups. Eventually, the groups will meet on a semi-monthly basis to provide updates and concerns that the FWC can begin to tackle.
Attendees at the meeting were polled on how they felt about current bear management practices and the desire for bear-proof trashcans to become available to the public. The information would be provided to senior FWC leadership for consideration.
“Right now there are drastic differences between bear management units,” said O’Connell. “Florida is very diverse geographically and by breaking up each area we can better manage the interactions between people and bears.
“We want to gather as much information as possible.”
For more information on the bear management units, visit the FWC online at www.MyFWC.com/bear. To volunteer for the bear stakeholder group, email Kaitlin O’Connell at firstname.lastname@example.org.