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ERMD, FWC share bear essentials during virtual training for tribal community

A juvenile black bear near the Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church behind the Sweet Tooth Cafe on the Big Cypress Reservation investigates a garbage can on March 21, 2021. (ERMD)

The Florida black bear may not be the officially designated state animal, but sightings are becoming more common throughout the state, including on some Seminole reservations.

During the past few weeks, bears have been spotted almost daily on the Big Cypress Reservation. The Seminole Tribe’s Office of Emergency Management sends out notifications to alert residents about sightings and provide safety guidelines. In January, EM issued a warning about a bear sighting on the Immokalee Reservation.

The tribe’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)  held a virtual bear training session April 6 to inform the tribal community how to stay safe when sighting a bear and how to keep them away from homes, including properly securing garbage. More than 70 people attended the session on WebEx.

Bear management on the reservations is a collaborative effort between tribal departments – including Seminole Police, Animal Control, Public Works and ERMD – and the community.

“FWC doesn’t have jurisdiction on the reservations, so coordination comes from tribal leadership,” said Karli Eckel, ERMD environmental science manager. “It’s important for the community to work together by securing their garbage.”

Knowledge of basic facts about bears can help keep people and their property safe. 

“FWC policy’s emphasis is on personal responsibility,” said Chris Boyce, FWC south area bear biologist. “It is up to everyone who lives in bear country – and that is more and more of us – to be on deck for this.”

Florida black bears are found in every area of the state. Males can weigh between 250 and 400 pounds, require a 62-square mile range and tend to be risk takers. Females weigh between 125 and 250 pounds, need a range of just 15 square miles and are more secretive than males.

The bear diet consists mostly of plants and insects; about 80% plants and 16% insects. Only 4% of their meals are meat. They mostly forage for nuts and berries.

When bears stand upright, it is to see and smell better; it’s not a predatory posture. Their eyesight is similar to people, but their sense of smell is about 300 times greater than humans and about seven times better than bloodhounds.

“They can smell things miles away,” Boyce said. “It’s unlike anything we can imagine.”

A male adult bear checks out the surroundings on the Big Cypress Reservation on May 16, 2018. (ERMD)

Bears are most active at dawn and dusk when their coats blend into the environment better. They are more nocturnal in urban environments.

They don’t want to interact with humans and will generally run away or climb trees to get away. Bears try to avoid fights and are excellent climbers.

Bears who feel threatened will typically display defensive behavior as a warning to the intruder; it’s not an attack warning. The bear will huff, pin its ears back, charge, stomp the ground and create a popping noise with its jaws.

“If you see these behaviors, back away and let it have its space,” Boyce advised. “Don’t run.”

Boyce said an encounter is very different from an attack.

“If there is plenty of room between you and them, back away slowly and talk quietly,” he said. “If contact is inevitable, always fight back. Yell, wave your arms over your head. They only eat animals who play dead; you don’t want them to think you are an easy meal.”

If someone sees a bear in the woods while hiking or hunting, it is best to make some noise to alert it of your presence, such as jingling keys and talking.

“If you come face to face, make yourself big, don’t turn your back and don’t run away,” Boyce said. “Retreat to wherever you can safely. They typically don’t want anything to do with you in the woods.”

He said running away could trigger the bear’s predator/prey response.

“No one can outrun a black bear,” Boyce said. “The fastest human, Usain Bolt, could run 27 miles per hour. Bears can run 35 miles per hour.”

Like bears elsewhere, Florida black bears hibernate, but not because of frigid temperatures. Reproduction cannot occur without the hibernation cycle. Dens can be as simple as a pile of palm fronds on the floor of a forest.

Breeding season is in June and July. The female controls how many eggs are implanted, depending on how much food is available. The more she eats, the more cubs she can sustain. Cubs are born in the den in February. An average litter is two or three cubs, but can be as large as five. Newborns are deaf and blind and weigh about 12 ounces at birth. They emerge from the den in April and stay with the mother for about 18 months.

“If you see mothers and cubs together, make sure you can get to a safe place,” Boyce said. “They are 35 miles per hour animals and their behavior can be unpredictable.”

People have had a significant impact on bears and their habitat. Florida has about 21 million residents and 113 million visitors annually, both of which contribute to habitat loss. FWC receives about 5,000 calls about bears every year. Since there are only FWC bear specialists in the state, it relies heavily on the public for information on bears’ locations. About a third of the calls are sighting reports and another third are about bears disturbing garbage. The rest are about property damage, bear and pet encounters and bears inside dwellings.

With so many people around, bears can become accustomed to the presence of people and associate them with food. Once that food association is strong, bears may become bold and unafraid to approach people. That’s the behavior that worries Boyce the most.

“We stress to everyone to make sure bears aren’t fed,” Boyce said. “It’s the number one thing we can do. From a mile away they can smell that pizza crust in the garbage can, outdoor pet food, unclean grills and bird feeders.”

There are various ways to secure garbage from bears, including bear-resistant dumpsters with latches. Residential strategies include storing garbage cans inside a garage or shed, modifying existing cans with latches or using bear-resistant cans that only open when they are turned 180 degrees.

“People hand-feeding bears keeps me up at night,” Boyce said. “It’s really dangerous. The bear might approach other people for a similar reward and that’s when the real danger happens.”

Sometimes electric fencing is the only solution to keep gardens, livestock and beehives secure from bears.

“Bears are dexterous and acrobatic,” Boyce said. “They are amazing creatures.”

Figures show the risk of being attacked is very low. Since 1970 only 14 people in Florida have been injured by bears. Some of the many effective ways to chase bears away are clanging pots and pans together, installing motion activated lights, alarms and sprinklers, using slingshots, air horns, car horns and car alarms.

Boyce said paintball guns are effective in scaring away bears without inflicting significant harm.

“Human dominance can work,” he said. “Yell at the bear, keep them afraid to be around you. But they will return. Everyone in the neighborhood has to be vigilant.”

A question and answer period with viewers followed the presentation. Barbara Billie said bears don’t really bother her, but asked if wind chimes would keep them away from her house.

“They aren’t loud enough and bears will get used them quickly,” Boyce said. “You want an immediate and loud sound to deter them. You can set up a radio hooked up to a motion sensor and it will turn on when a  bear comes by. That can work. It could be annoying at 2 or 3 in the morning, but those type of things can be effective.”

Rollie Gilliam, a Center for Student Success and Services’ advanced career development participant, said he would share the information with other tribal members and his coworkers.

“A lot of myths were debunked during the presentation,” he said.

A curious juvenile bear appears on the Big Cypress Reservation on Sept. 8, 2020. (ERMD)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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