Florida's magnificent black bears deserve room to roam
When I was a kid, we had to go deep into the woods to see wildlife. Now, it seems you can't watch the nightly news without witnessing another wild animal encounter in the city. Take the rash of sightings of Florida black bears. In the past few months, they've ambled down black tar streets in Miami, taken dips in backyard pools in Orlando and climbed trees in Tampa. The good news is that Florida's black bears have made a comeback — from about 300 in the 1970s, to about 3,000 today. The bad news is that the state received more than 4,000 calls last year about bears in urban settings.Bears require large, intact tracts to survive. An adult bear can roam more than 100 miles looking for a mate or food — saw palmetto berries, acorns and insects. But because of Florida's sprawling growth, many inevitably stumble into urban areas, are killed on roads or seek refuge in neighborhood trees until wildlife officers can shoot them with dart guns and move them. Bears are peaceful. They are omnivores. Florida has not recorded one black bear attack in its history. But when bears roam neighborhoods looking for food, they are considered a nuisance. One of the worst problem areas is around the Ocala National Forest, home to about 1,200 bears. Increasingly, its bears have been showing up in the neighborhoods of Orlando. A study shows about 13 percent have healed fractures, most likely from being struck by cars. Without wildlife corridors for bears to travel, conservationists worry they will become genetically isolated and eventually, extinct. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is working with wildlife groups on a plan to preserve and manage our state's bear population. The plan, which is expected to be approved at a meeting on Wednesday and Thursday in West Palm Beach, calls for establishing wildlife corridors to reconnect isolated bear populations. It also calls for removing the black bear from the threatened species list, though it will remain illegal to kill them. And the plan calls for creating "bear smart communities" that help governments and neighborhoods better prepare for bear sightings and reduce the number of bears hurt or killed. Who can argue with a plan designed to protect Florida's black bear with habitat and corridors, and properly educate people about one of our most magnificent creatures? It can't come soon enough.
Formerly a newspaper reporter, Susan Clary is a freelance writer in Orlando. She can be reached at [email protected]