TAMPA — Ursus americanus floridanus is reclaiming its territory in the Sunshine State.
The Florida black bear population ran thick a couple hundred years ago across every mile of Florida, from the swampy Everglades to the oak hammocks of the peninsula to the pine forests of the north.
They foraged for berries and acorns but would eat just about anything. After all, they’re bears.
Then you-know-who showed up and pushed the black bear out. There was hunting and trapping and speeding cars. Towns and cities sprang up, smothering habitat bears needed to survive.
In the early 1970s, the lumbering creatures had just about died out in the state. Biologists said maybe 300 remained in all of Florida, if that.
Then something happened. They became darlings of Floridians, who love to pull for the underdog (See alligators, manatees, eagles).
The result: Florida black bears have rebounded nicely in the Everglades, in the Ocala National Forest and the Panhandle. There are smaller populations living in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge about an hour north of Tampa and in Highlands and Glades County, a couple of hours southeast of here.
The most recent count, taken a dozen years ago, estimated Florida was home to some 2,600 bears, said David Telesco, bear management coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“We think we have a lot more than 3,000 now,” he said. “How many more? We don’t know.”
So, it’s time for another estimate — not really a count — of how many bears live in Florida.
“Counting every single bear is a little hard to do,” Telesco said.
State wildlife biologists are scouring the woods, hammocks and swamps of central and northern Florida in what might be the state’s most comprehensive and ambitious bear survey ever undertaken. The two-year effort will cost $500,000 and give researchers a better picture of how many bears are out there, where they live and how far they range.
It’s not easy counting bears. They are solitary and reclusive and tend to live in dense woods far from the beaten path. So, biologists have come up with a way to estimate their numbers without laying eyes them.
Open-ended barbed wire corrals are being set up in areas of the Ocala National Forest and north past Jacksonville. The pens are being placed in forests now, and next week bait will be loaded into the snares. The lure: doughnuts.
Bears mosey into the corrals, eat the doughnuts and leave, but not before leaving a tuft of hair on the barbed wire. The small mass of hair is collected and sent to a DNA lab. Through the thousands of samples collected over the next two years, scientists should be able to fairly accurately estimate how many bears live in Florida.
“We know we’re not getting every single bear,” Telesco said.
This year, bear populations between Ocala and the Georgia state line will be counted; bears in South Florida and the Panhandle will be targeted next year. It might be three years before all the data are analyzed and biologists can give their conclusions as to how many bears live here, he said.
In the past two weeks, workers have installed about 280 of the bear detectors, said Walt McCown, a bear researcher with the commission for 30 years.
The crews building the pens have actually seen just one bear so far, he said, though the Ocala bear population of at least 1,000 is the largest in the state.
“They’re in all kinds of terrain,” he said, “swamps, pine flat woods, oak hammocks and long-leaf forests.”
The estimated bear population of about 3,000 represents quite a comeback from the low of 300 just 40 years ago, though there never will be 11,000 bears living here, which was the estimate more than 300 years ago, when the only humans here were Indians living along the coast, and a fledgling town of St. Augustine.
In 2012, fish and wildlife officials commissioned a study and published the 196-page Florida Black Bear Management Plan, containing graphs and charts, data and numbers and expert opinions of everything bruin.
The goal of the plan: “Maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and people.”
Biologists say there are five subpopulations of bears in the state that add up to the total population estimate.
“Florida black bears thrive in habitats that provide an annual supply of seasonally available foods, secluded areas for denning, and some degree of protection from humans,” the management plan says. Female black bears pick their homes based on food and seclusion, the plan says, and males “establish a home range in relation to the presence of females. ”
If they don’t get into scrapes with humans or stumble out in front of a car, bears can live for a couple of decades. The oldest wild bear documented in Florida was a 24-year-old female from Apalachicola.
Being hit by vehicles is the leading known cause of death for bears in Florida, and from 2000 to 2010 biologists documented an average of 136 bears hit and killed by vehicles each year. Poaching has not been a big problem in Florida.
Occasionally, bears do rub too close to humans, and those that aren’t caught and relocated are euthanized. Earlier this year, seven bears were put down in a small central Florida community because they got too chummy with the humans.
“There is only so much forest we have now,” Telesco said. “Bears can live in neighborhoods. The bears don’t mind, but we mind.”
In April, the skirmish between bears and humans turned into an all-out war in Lake Mary, a Seminole County town where the bears had lost their fear of humans. That was mainly because some of the humans there were feeding them, Telesco said.
The conflict culminated when a woman was attacked in her garage by a bear. She managed to escape, but as wildlife officers converged on the area, they noticed bears all around the neighborhoods, fearless of people. In all, seven bears were trapped and euthanized.
Telesco said he had never seen anything like that.
“These bears completely and totally had lost their fear of humans,” he said. “They no longer were wild black bears. These bears had learned they were supposed to get food from people and that is about as dangerous as you can get. Residents there didn’t know that that was not normal. They thought it was normal for bears.
“If you see them, that’s OK,” he said. “But, we want them to run away when they see you. That’s what normal wild bears should do.”
Fortunately, that was in an area where the bear population is large and euthanizing seven bears had minimal effect on the population.