Santa Rosa and Okaloosa are among eight Florida counties in line to receive funding from the 'BearWise' program, to help reduce conflicts between bears and humans.
Bear populations in the state were up in 2015, the latest figures available from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), compared to the last estimate taken in 2002. There were roughly 120 bears in the western Panhandle of Florida – a 50 percent increase -- and nearly 1,100 in the eastern Panhandle – up 86 percent.
"We have 4,000 bears and almost 21 million people, and we just need to figure out how to live in the same space and not encourage bears to come into our space,” said Dave Telesco, who leads FWC’s Bear Management, which oversees the BearWise program that began in 2007.
Up to $500,000 will be provided to local and county governments, aimed at offsetting some of the expenses for bear-resistant trash cans and dumpsters. That’s if they have an ordinance to keep trash secure until pickup day.
“Do they have conflicts, and if so, how many conflicts are they having compared to the other applicants?” said Telesco. “But also, if we’ve given them equipment in the past, is all that equipment spoken for, or is there still some left? The number one thing is, over 60 percent of that funding has to go to a place that has an ordinance.”
FWC staff will continue to meet with governments and homeowner’s associations on enacting the ordinances required by BearWise trash ordinances. Telesco says they try to figure out what would work best in their situations.
“Every local government at every level is a little bit different,” Telesco says. “They have a little different relationship with their waste service provider, or the setup is a little different. So we try to provide a wide array of options.”
“That’s not Yogi, or Boo-Boo or Smokey; they are wild animals and they need to be treated as such. They will hurt you,” says Santa Rosa Commissioner Bob Cole, who came across a bear in his garage last fall.
He says the BearWise grant is different from the $140,000 the county returned to FWC last year because it seems a little more significant.
“This time, they’ll be able to give enough to commercial enterprises,” Cole said. “Whereas last funding left us very short of the 100 percent mark that I felt we should reach. If we’re going to help one family, we should have the ability to everybody that needs it.”
Cole is skeptical about the BearWise plan, saying everything they’re now seeing from Fish and Wildlife are short-term solutions. What, he asks, is going to happen to the growing bear population?
“What’s been talked about up to now is rattling pans, put up better fences, keep your trash cans locked,” said Cole. “But what I’ve yet to hear from [FWC] or the state on how we’re going to reduce this population. Mama Bear keeps teaching the cubs how to forage through trash cans instead of naturally like they should be doing.”
Cole favors trapping the bears in Florida, having a veterinarian make sure they’re healthy, and then sending them to neighboring states where other black bears live.
“I’ve been told you cannot transport these bears to other states; mountain states like Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee that would like to re-populate black bears in areas where they’re not in the mountains anymore,” said Cole. “I don’t understand that.”
But FWC’s Dave Telesco points to an agreement among the 15 states making up the Southeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
“Your bears are your bears, and my bears are my bears,” Telesco said. “Where you relocate your bears, that’s a limited amount of space; so you don’t want to take some other state’s bears.
“The other thing is that once a bear has been so used to people that they’ve lost their fear, it can become a safety threat. And we’re certainly not going to release that anywhere in Florida or in any other state.”
Fish and Wildlife plan to announce the BearWise funding awards by October, the time of year when black bears are at their most active.