When people come to the beach to visit or live, many are surprised to discover that black bears are also part of the population.
Upon discovering this fact due to a sighting, many’s first reaction is to call local law enforcement.
However, handling of black bears falls under the control of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is based in Tallahassee, but has a regional office in Panama City.
In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred known black bears in Northwest Florida and conservation measures were enacted.
FWC estimates there to be approximately 120 bears in the west Panhandle area of Escambia, Holmes, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Walton counties centered in and around Eglin Air Force Base. Those help make up the estimated 4,000 statewide.
Over the past year, the agency has received 109 bear-related calls from the public.
Early last week, a video surfaced on social media of a bear cub attempting to jump into a dumpster outside Louis Louis restaurant on U.S. Highway 98 and Mussett Bayou Road. Not long afterward, Walton County Sheriff’s Office released a picture of a bear cub inside the dumpster that needed to be rescued as it could not get out. WCSO responded and placed a ladder inside the dumpster to allow the cub to escape back into the woods nearby.
But in the early morning of Aug. 29, WCSO and FWC received calls about two bear cubs that had been found dead on the side of U.S. 98 that appeared to have been hit by a car. They were found near Thompson Road, which is in the same vicinity across the highway from the restaurant.
FWC sent a contract biologist out to pick up the cubs.
During the past year — September to September — there have been no additional bears killed on the roads of Walton County that were reported, said Bekha Nelson, FWC’s public information officer for the Northwest Florida region.
“We receive a lot of calls, but typically we do not relocate bears,” said Nelson.
Nelson said relocation does not typically work as the bears will usually return to their original location, and there are no remote areas to attempt to relocate them to.
Instead the FWC relies on educating the public on the importance of securing attractants.
“They have a powerful sense of smell,” said Nelson. “It’s important to get bear-resistant garbage can, clean barbecue grills, bring pet food and bird feeders inside.”
Bears are driven by their need to eat and have a sense of smell that can detect odors more than a mile away.
Problems arise when bears gain access to food sources such as pet foods, garbage, barbecue grills, bird seed, or livestock feed.
The calories a bear can consume by picking through one garbage can often surpass what they can find in an entire day in the wild, according to FWC.
Bears are highly intelligent, and just like the cartoon-character Yogi the Bear, they learn quickly to associate people with food.
While black bears are normally too shy to risk contact with humans, their powerful need to find food can overwhelm this fear. So as they become dependent on a food source they are more likely to frequent residential areas to get these food sources. They will return frequently to locations with accessible food and can take several weeks after preventative methods have been implemented before a bear will understand that the food source is no longer available.
These habituated and food-conditioned bears are often killed, either by vehicle collisions, illegal shooting, or as a result of bear management actions to keep the community safe.
If you encounter a bear, Nelson said to speak in an assertive voice and back away slowly.
There have been 15 documented cases of a bear injuring a person in Florida, but none occurred in Walton County.
FWC states it is easy to live in harmony with bears and save their lives by simply securing the temptation of trash and other attractants.