Author's Note: A shorter, editorial version of this article was published in The Gainesville Sun.
Meeting Sanibel Bear
On a muggy, buggy August day about dawn, a Florida black bear stood up on its hind legs on the trail between Trout Creek and Flatwoods Park north of Tampa and sniffed – well, me. The bear next did what is typical – it charged off in a straight line over everything in its path into the woods to get away.
For a naturalist on his second cup of coffee and second mile of a 30-mile mountain-biking trek this was as if dark storm clouds had parted and a shaft of sunlight had descended accompanied by “Ode to Joy.”
You say: Tampa? What was a bear doing in Florida’s third-largest city? Even more curious, the bear came to Tampa from Sanibel. You say: Sanibel Island? Yes, believe it or not, and a sort of indicator of the problems with bears, that they are popping up out of their normal habitats. In part this is because of a resounding success story: the recovery of Florida’s black bear population from near extinction in 1974. Credit for this reversal of fortune goes to conservationists and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the agency that manages our wildlife.
Captured on the island of the same name, Sanibel Bear was darted on June 21, 2012, and relocated to the vicinity of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on adjacent state wildlife management lands near the river of the same name.
Like most relocated bears, especially adults, this male wouldn’t stay put.
No one is sure where Sanibel Bear came from before he came to Sanibel, but likely from The Big Cypress, a large marshy/swampy area in South Florida.
A bicycle rider approaching me took a photograph of Sanibel Bear and later showed it to the county park rangers. I called Grizz (for Grizzly), then the head ranger of the adjoining parks, because I was worried the bear would run into rush-hour I-75 traffic a dozen yards away and join the growing number of bears killed on Florida highways – not to mention getting someone killed on their way to work.
I needn’t have worried.
The bear successfully avoided traffic. It ended up that evening near Busch Gardens and my alma mater, The University of South Florida. It was relocated to Mud Swamp/New River Wilderness Area, a remote Panhandle location about as wild and lonesome as any in Florida - so far an apparently successful relocation.
Other Bears I Have Known
Ocala National Forests has a lot of bears.
In 2000, I spotted my first bear in the wild while hiking along the 70-mile Florida Trail Segment within Ocala National Forest. Our party must have been upwind. Bears can smell a human a mile off at times. Their sense of smell is seven times better than that of a bloodhound and better than any other land mammal, yet his bear had no idea we were coming. When the bear saw photographer Pete Carmichael and myself, it immediately tore away in a straight line running in the opposite direction over all vegetation in its path. This is what bears normally do, and what usually makes seeing a Florida black bear deep in the woods a safe experience. Bear mothers teach fear of humans to their cubs (as well they should).
In 2000 and 2003, I saw bears apparently having good times atop pine trees. One bear was swaying back and forth like a child in a swing, only 30 to 40 feet in the air atop a loblolly pine near Salt Springs Run, part of Ocala National Forest. Another bear I spotted in a longleaf above the wire grass of Torreya State Park in the Panhandle doing the exact same thing. What were the bears doing in the trees? I thought they were playing, but not so. Sarah Barnett from the FWC says bears climb trees when they’re afraid and to get a good look around.
One day in 2001, Ranger Steve Earl from Gold Head Branch State Park took me hiking on Camp Blanding, a location I had never previously visited, sort of to the east of Gainesville and north a piece and dedicated to the National Guard. Afterwards on the southward trip toward home, I stopped to hike O’Leno State Park, a place I had frequently hiked and thought I knew like the back of my hand. I don’t think bears are commonly seen there. On what I intended to be a short walk in a familiar place, I walked almost into a bear that walked almost into me. The safe distance to be from a bear is around 50 yards. I was within five fee. The large male stood and sniffed, and then we both turned and ran like hell. They tell you never to run from a bear, easy for them to say, but they’re right; a bear can run faster than you can. Also don’t climb a tree to get away from a bear; they’re better climbers than you are. And don’t play possum. They weigh too much to have them sit on you (normally 200-400 pounds, and sometimes a whopping 600-plus pounds). How fast can these big creatures run? I have followed cross-country runners on my mountain bike doing eleven to twelve miles per hour. A Florida black bear can run at 27 miles per hour.
A few years later, a South Florida magazine asked me to do a story about “Wet Hiking in South Florida” (www.timohr.com, look under articles). Ranger Mike Owen, of The Orchid Thief fame (where he was inaccurately portrayed, I think, and certainly inaccurately armed with a pistol), drove me out to the “Fak” and stopped on an old tram road in the Fakahatchee Strand. Off I stepped into the swamp waters to do photography in connection with the article. My photos hoped to reveal the unbelievable beauty of the strand, the reward for slogging by floating and submerged alligators and occasional Florida cottonmouths. I had plodded about 20 yards in knee-deep murk, tripped over roots, and had taken about a half-dozen photos, when I saw a man in a black coat plucking a pond apple from a tree only a few yards away. Then I realized it wasn’t a man. I quickly backed out of the swamp – this bear never saw me or heard me – or else it didn’t care.
One would think I couldn’t possibly be so lucky as to see another black bear in the “Fak” the same day, but when Mike was driving me back to the park headquarters so I could change into clean clothes, another black bear blasted across the road directly in front of us.
The reader should note that in all these encounters taking place in the woods, I was never in danger. For twenty years, I have trudged almost daily through Florida woods hoping to see black bears, and only seen perhaps a dozen. Yet I am told they must be hunted, that there are too many in our state, and even if no biological carrying capacity had been determined, the negative actions of bears means they need to be hunted.
The Constantly Hungry Bear
In 1974, Florida black bears were close to wiped out by hunting and habitat destruction. Some estimates put the number of bears then around 300, and hunting was limited to Baker and Columbia counties and Apalachicola National Forest. The number of bears had improved some when in 1994 hunting bears was halted altogether in the Sunshine State. Since then bear populations have grown, human populations have grown, and problems between bears and humans have escalated.
285 Florida black bears were killed on Florida highways the year Sanibel Bear came to Tampa, perhaps as many bears as existed in the whole state in 1974. 2014 saw three bear attacks on humans, an unusually high number, but still an extremely rare event. The odds are 1 in 6,000,000 more or less.
Bears have also become common backyard, farm, and ranch invaders in areas where they are plentiful and have become pests. Why?
If you think you know what it’s like to be hungry, just imagine you weigh as much as a bear. If you’re a bear, your normal diet consists of berries, nuts, fruit, grains, and insects. You may also eat a little meat in the form of road kill – or not. The people at the FWC say Florida black bears rarely kill prey. (Oh: I always thought it was honey bears were after when they raided beekeepers, but not so. The bears are after the bees.)
If you weigh as much as a bear and your diet is so limited, food is always a problem, both finding it and eating enough of it. Meat is high in calories, so is ice cream, but bears don’t eat much of either, except by accident and usually from a trashcan. Mostly vegetarian-insectivore bears burn around 5,000 calories a day in summer (2.5 times human daily needs) and up to 20,000 calories a day in fall, or what a human eats in ten days. It is almost always hunger that lures black bears out of their normal habitats and hunger that drives black bears into conflict with humans. Sometimes it is habitat destruction, when an entire forest is “harvested.” Neither is the bears’ fault.
Imagine being hungry all your life. I mean really hungry, that “I could eat a horse,” hungry. Imagine scavenging and rooting about daily trying to quench that hunger and then one day, “Eureka!” You walk up on an easily opened garbage can or better yet a wide open dumpster. Or say pet food left outside or food for livestock. Or you find a human idiot who feeds wild bears.
Bon appetit. Eat all you like.
It is when bears get into human, pet, or livestock food that they become a threat, because they stop running from us and learn not to fear us. Easy pickings attract bears near humans again and again, and once they get used to humans and their food, it is hard to drive them off.
Killing Sanibel Bear
Sadly it appears 175 to 200 bears will be killed in a Florida under new guidelines from the FWC. This slaughter will start in October. The numbers killed in future years are likely to be increased if hunting bears goes ahead.
Sanibel Bear has been moved near to Apalachicola National Forest. He may in fact be in the forest right now. This is one of the areas where bear hunting will resume. This bear’s mere presence lifted my spirits one summer morning, and as far as I know this bear has not been a pest. He was kind of loved and welcomed as a celebrity on Sanibel Island when he was there, a local star. Yet he might be shot through the heart or the brain for the sins of other bears, or more appropriately the sins of humans, Florida’s most prominent invasive species. Hunting doesn’t solve the problem bears, because hunted bears are going to be deep in the forest and likely are not the ones causing human conflicts.
Recent polls show that over 60% of Floridians are against hunting bears and with good reason. Less than 20% are in favor of hunting the bears. 75% of people writing the FWC recently with comments were against bear hunting.
So much for the power of the people!
The will of the vast majority of Floridians is being ignored. In fact, it was said those against bear hunting (like me) had never been in the woods and had confused bears and teddy bears.
I have always praised the FWC. But asking for public comments and then disparaging the people that make them is a very condescending thing to do. I understand this was only one individual at FWC, but it was a very important one.
Killing bears will not keep bears off roads or stop collision with cars unless severely hunted to the point of oblivion. The obvious ways to keep bears and vehicles from colliding is by putting up fencing, erecting more warning signs, lowering speed limits (especially at dawn and dusk), adding underpasses when roads are designed, and installing “bear crossings,” flashing lights at places where bears are known to cross roads frequently (the lights activated by motion sensors). The FWC is working on all of these, except perhaps lowering speed limits, albeit slowly because it takes time with all the agencies involved. Someone should cut through the red tape so these efforts should be speeded up.
Taking the life of bears will also not keep bears out of foods not intended for them. Only humans in areas with bears can do that by putting their personal or municipal garbage in bear-proof containers, not leaving pets or pet food outside, vigorous policing of people who dump their garbage along our roads and waterways or feed bears, and fencing in livestock with electrified wires. Bird feeders near bear habitat also attracts hungry bears. Local governments with a bear problem could require bear-proof trashcans and ban bird feeders. The FWC could set a goal of a high percentage of bear-proofed trash cans near areas with bears and help fund them through contributions from conservation organizations or asking for the money in its budget.
Sooner or later there will be a rare fatal encounter between a bear and a human in Florida, but hunting won’t stop that either. A death by bear attack hasn’t happened yet in Florida in modern times and seems most likely to come from a bear feeding on trash that has lost its fear of humans. Bears deep in the woods, the ones to be hunted, usually run away from us.
I asked folks at the FWC why we couldn’t relocate bears. Problem bears are relocated routinely, but couldn’t we relocate the ones we’re going to shoot instead of hunting them? We could put more bears where they are needed to boost populations to sustainable levels and reduce the numbers where bears are a “problem.” According to the folks at FWC, 70% of bears don’t stay where they are relocated. A killed bear is 100% dead. In this light, perhaps the 30% rate of successful relocation isn’t so unacceptable.
According to Internet sources I can’t swear are true, there is also some chance that relocated juveniles, especially males, at ages 1.5 to 4 years, before they establish a range, might have a much higher success rate than 30%. This has apparently been true elsewhere in small trials. It has never been tried in Florida. If true, why not give it a shot instead of shooting the bears?
There is also the matter of “soft release” of relocated bears, that is tactics designed to keep the bears around longer. It’s not clear to me that such techniques have been tried in Florida, since relocation is usually problem bears carted off a long distance. Why a long distance? Because the farther a bear is removed from its range, the less likely it is to return.
We might also neuter the bears in areas where hunting is proposed. We don’t need to fix every bear in Florida, maybe just that magic number of 10 to 20% of females in areas with heavy bear presence. Fixing males apparently does not as much good, but on the other hand it couldn’t make the problem worse.
By the way, I am told if we control bears access to human food, the bears will have less cubs. Hence food control equals population control also.
The FWC doesn’t appear to be interested in any of these proposals. It doesn’t take them seriously and has ready explanations for why they won’t work. Their collective minds appeared to have been made up long before I contacted them. They are going to hunt bears, no matter what the people of Florida think about it because we don’t know bears from teddy bears.
Of course, the bears get no say in this matter of whether they are hunted or not. Sanibel Bear has no vote. This decision is left to the same creatures that have devastated bear habitat and persecuted bears so that a land that once had 12,000 bears is unable apparently to accept a quarter of that number without killing them. And the decision is being made against the majority wishes of the people of Florida.
Since the bears can’t speak in this matter, let’s continue to speak for them. If you want to speak your mind on the resumed hunting of bears, here’s how: email: BearComments@MyFWC.com.
Box. Safe Hiking With Bears
There has never been a documented attack on a hiker by a Florida black bear. Black bears have attacked hikers out west and on the Appalachian Trail. Here’s how not to be the first person attacked by a Florida black bear while hiking. Keep in mind that the safe distance from a Florida black bear is half a football less the end zone. Due to Florida’s woods being heavily vegetated, you are likely to walk up too close to a bear for safety’s safe.
Back away slowly and steadily.
If a bear continues coming toward you, move to your right or left.
If the bear continues coming, discard all food.
If a bear appears likely to charge (vocalizing with the ears back), holler, throw things like rocks and sticks, and hold your arms up high to appear larger.
In the event of an attack: fight with all you’ve got.
Box. There’s a Bear in My Pool
This scenario is not unlikely. Bears can swim and are sometimes seen swimming in the Gulf or wading in streams. They can swim up to a mile, although they are certainly no Mark Spitz or Esther Williams.
If bears get on your property, get inside. Bring any pets outside in. Outside pets have shorter lives than indoor animals and cost more because they contract more diseases and get injured more. They run a serious risk of injury with a black bear around. Call the FWC regional office (available on-line and in the Florida government section of most phone books). Once safely inside, make noise and let the bear know it is not welcome. Chances are the bear is looking for food. If you have any outside food sources, you will need to remove them. Bear-proof trashcans can be purchased on-line and at many hardware stores.
Box. Bad Fathers
We shouldn’t humanize bears. Sanibel Bear is a bad dad. After mating, he’ll have nothing to do with his kids. Mom will have to raise her one to three cubs without him. He might even harm them. He is a large wild animal in a hot buggy state. Child rearing takes so long, bear mothers have liters every other year in January and February. And deadbeat Sanibel bear doesn’t do a thing for them except don