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Santa Rosa County's Bear Problem


With black bear sightings on the rise in Santa Rosa County, local officials are asking the state for help. One official is taking the lead after a close encounter.

County Commissioner Bob Cole’s wife recently discovered an unwanted visitor to their home in Milton.

“We keep the dog and cat foot in trash cans inside the garage,” Cole said. “That particular day, my wife had the garage door open; she later that day found the trash can turned over and the dog food gone. We had seen a bear several weeks prior to that in the woods next to the garage.”

An East Milton resident's surveillance camera video showed a bear foraging under the house, and another was found shot to death in Navarre.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s time for the state agencies that are responsible to start looking at this a little more,” said Cole.

Of the nearly 41 hundred black bears that call Florida home, roughly 120 are in the western Panhandle. In 2015, Santa Rosa led Florida counties in bear calls -- accounting for 12 percent of the statewide total.

“Actually, it’s not the number of bears, but the concentration of people where the bears go,” said Dave Telesco, who leads the FWC’s Bear Management Program.

“They come off Eglin Air Force Base, where we have development and also good bear habitat,” Telesco said. “So they’re spending a lot of time in neighborhoods where there’s [sic] a lot of people to call. It takes one bear to make a lot of phone calls.”

Credit santarosa.fl.gov
Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole.

In 2015, Santa Rosa led Florida counties in bear calls, accounting to 12 percent of the statewide total. Of the nearly 4,100 black bears that call Florida home, roughly 120 are in the western Panhandle.

“We have growing bear populations; we have growing people populations,” said Telesco. “The idea is we can co-exist, but unfortunately a lot of the way we do that is changing people’s behavior, and that’s sometimes difficult. The good news is Santa Rosa County has passed an ordinance for southern Santa Rosa County; and that’s where we have the most conflicts with bears.”

The bears are most active in the fall, seeking food to get them through hibernation.

That ordinance mandates all trash be kept secure until the morning of pickup -- keeping it in a garage, storage shed, or buying a bear-proof trash can. But Commissioner Bob Cole contends the ordinance is being ignored – by the bears.

“I’ve talked to constituents that said ‘I drove up to my house, it wasn’t even dark yet. Two bears in a trash can that had the security devices on it; they'd already torn them off, torn into the can,’” said Cole. “[He] sat there honking his horn at them, flashing his lights, revving his engine. He said they paid him no attention whatsoever.”

Last year, FWC awarded Santa Rosa County a $150,000 grant to offset residents’ bear-proofing costs. The money was returned -- Cole says it would not have covered everyone needing such help. The Commission plans to send a letter to FWC, and to Gov. Rick Scott. It would be ready for review in time for the next Commission meeting on November 9.

Fish and Wildlife is due out in 2019 with its upgraded bear management plan. For the most part, Cole says he’ll leave what goes into it to FWC.

“Just a good plan, other than what we’ve been told at this point to rattle pans make a lot of noise,” Cole said. “It’s not working as well as I think they hoped it would.”

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.