A Florida black bear tries to break into a trash can, via the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The last time Florida allowed a bear hunt, back in 2015, I spent opening day at one of the check-in stations at Rock Springs Run in Central Florida. Hunters were supposed to bring their dead bears there to be examined and weighed.
My memory contains a series of indelible images from two decades of covering Florida environmental issues: Watching a loggerhead sea turtle lay eggs on a moonless night. Seeing hundreds of swallowtail kites soaring up into a cloudless blue sky from the trees around Lake Okeechobee. For the bear hunt, what I remember most is when biologists readied the first dead bear for its weigh-in.
The bear’s tongue lolled out of its mouth, and a gush of saliva the color of strawberry jam spilled across the hunter’s tailgate. It was a mama bear, still lactating, meaning there was now at least one orphaned cub out in the woods. Hunters killed 36 lactating mama bears, out of more than 300 bears that were slain in just two days.
That 2015 hunt created so much bad publicity for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that the state agency has not held another one. But now there’s a lot of clamor in one Panhandle county about troublesome bears, and some folks would like to turn this into “Bear Hunt 2: Electric Boogaloo.”.
“We really need a bear hunt,” Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Kill-Em-All, told the News Service of Florida last week. “It’s what we need here in North Florida. We’re inundated. We’ve got way too many. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to have these problems.”
Before we deal with the claim that there can be “too many” bears, let’s hear from Franklin County Sheriff A.J. “Tony” Smith, who’s repeatedly posted videos about unbearable bear incidents on his Facebook page.
“I know that folks are ready for something to be done,” Smith said in a video posted on his Facebook page on Sept. 21. He said freaked-out residents were reporting bears wandering into their yards, chilling by their swimming pools, and sleeping in a tree above their houses.
“That’s unacceptable and I’m demanding that something be done,” the clearly angry Smith said to state wildlife officials.” I don’t know what else to say except get off your asses and get to work and get us a solution.”
If the sheriff’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he made headlines last year when his methamphetamine task force, whose slogan was “We Don’t Meth Around,” had to arrest Smith’s own adult daughter for drug trafficking.
On his Facebook page, Smith said he’d sent a letter to Gov, Ron “I’m On the Road So Much I’m No Longer a Florida Resident” DeSantis asking for help in getting action on the bears from the wildlife commission. He held up a copy of the state’s bear management plan and said it was “not a plan that someone like myself can understand.”
But here’s something Shoaf and the sheriff apparently don’t know about Florida’s bears, something you should (ahem) bear in mind: Every time some humans in our state have reported a problem with the bears, the problem has turned out to be caused by the humans.
“Hunts do not reduce bear-human conflicts,” Chuck O’Neal of the environmental group Speak Up Wekiva, who went to court in 2015 to try to stop the last hunt, told me this week. “It all comes back to the garbage issue.”
Bears have a moment
Last month, humans all over the world were haw-hawing about a bear that showed up at Walt Disney World.
People joked about the bear trying to hook up with Disney’s many comical bears: Winnie the Pooh and Baloo from “The Jungle Book” looking for the bare necessities, and of course the animatronic Country Bear Jamboree.
Meanwhile, as a TV news helicopter hovered overhead, wildlife commission biologists moved in. They captured the female bear and carted it off to be released in the Ocala National Forest, far, far away from Cinderella’s Castle.
This is just one example of how bears have become big news lately. “Bears Are Having a Moment,” The New York Times reported this week.
The story, concerned with the extensive bear-related content on social media, pointed out that this is Fat Bear Week, an annual contest run by a media-savvy national park in Alaska.
“It’s not just that there are more bear-human interactions in some places,” the Times reported. “It’s also that we’re hearing about them again and again.”
In Franklin County, though, the frequency of “bear-human interactions” has convinced some people that there are, in fact, more bears — perhaps some of them troublemakers that have been relocated from other parts of the state.
Franklin County was named for Ben Franklin, even though the Sage of Philadelphia never set foot there. It’s a lightly populated county, with only 13,000 residents living in this picturesque area 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee, known as “the Forgotten Coast.”
So few people live there because 90 percent of it is owned by the state and federal governments, according to Franklin County Commission Chairman Ricky Jones. That government property contains a bounty of natural beauty, such as Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest.
The county seat is the waterfront village of Apalachicola, once described by popular mystery writer Dawn Lee McKenna as “one of the few places left that actually felt like Florida, with its century-old brick and clapboard shops and houses, the marina filled with shrimp and oyster boats, and people who couldn’t care less about Disney World.”
Apalach, as the locals call it, was the home of Dr. John Gorrie, who in 1841 invented the first air conditioning system (he was of course labeled a crackpot and died penniless). And nearby Carrabelle is where World War II troops trained for the D-Day invasion and complained about all the mosquitoes, snakes, sand spurs, and temperatures that seemed “too hot for the Devil, too hot for the men.”
But when bear advocate Katrina Shadix visited recently, what caught her attention was neither the historic markers nor the charming architecture.
It was all the trash.
A bear version of the Bat Signal
Shadix is leader of an Oviedo-based organization called Bear Warriors United. She’s a little bit like Batman, but for the Florida black bear.
Whenever there’s a problem around Florida involving “Ursus americanus floridanus,” Shadix shows up. It’s as if someone had flashed her a bear version of the Bat Signal.
She doesn’t wear a cowl and a cape, but she did help nail a bear-poaching ring operating out of Ocala National Forest. She also persuaded lawmakers to toughen the penalty for illegal killing of a bear. She sends free bear-proof straps for garbage can lids to anyone who asks.
When she heard about the complaints in Franklin County, she set out to see the place for herself. She told me a tipster had warned her “they have literal boatloads of trash — old broken-down boats is where they dump their trash.”
She did find one boat loaded with trash, she told me. More common were residential trash cans that had been knocked over, with the contents strewed all over the ground.
Shadix said she spotted a convenience store dumpster next to a trail of bear tracks leading to and from the woods. That showed her that bears were regular customers.
Shadix sent me lots of pictures that documented Franklin’s extensive trash problem. She told me she counted more than 200 trash cans and dumpsters “and only one was bear proof.”
The conclusion is obvious: The bears keep gobbling up the garbage, which puts them in direct contact with the humans leaving all that garbage out.
It’s not that there are too many bears, as Shoaf contended. It’s that there’s waaaaay too much trash tempting them to leave the woods for the neighborhoods.
In one of his Facebook rants, Sheriff Smith also talked about bear-proof trash cans. They cost too much, he contended.
“You can’t buy a bear [proof] container,” he said. “It’s hundreds of dollars to get one. It’d be great if everyone in Franklin County could get one.”
Between 2007 and 2019, the wildlife commission spent about $2.1 million providing bear-proof trash cans to the 16 Florida counties with the most human-bear conflicts, according to FWC spokeswoman Lisa Thompson.
“The funding … encouraged local governments to pass ordinances requiring trash be kept secure,” she said via e-mail. “Local ordinances are the most effective way to achieve a community-wide effort to keep trash secure and bears from lingering in neighborhoods.”
Five counties and three cities have ordinances that require bear-proof cans, she said. Franklin is not one of those.
In fact, it turns out that Franklin needs something even more basic than bear-proof cans.
What a hungry bear will eat
Did I mention that this is “Fat Bear Week”? The reason for that has nothing to do with the usual rites of October, such as Halloween, the baseball playoffs, and Banned Books Week (a popular one here in Florida).
This is the time of year when bears are packing on the pounds before they enter their winter hibernation. Hence the “fat bear” contest.
Although Florida’s bears don’t hole up in a cave and snooze through a snowy winter, they do experience what scientists call “carnivore lethargy,” which is also what I plan to call my new indie rock band.
Like humans who opt for a McDonald’s burger instead of assembling a healthy salad, a hungry bear tends to head for the easiest food source.
Normally their preferred food would be saw palmetto berries found when they forage in the forest. But if there’s high-calorie garbage readily available, they go for that instead. That’s when you see them wolfing (bearing?) down tossed-out pizza, tacos, or donuts.
One reason why the bears find a lot of loose garbage in Franklin County, O’Neal told me, is because the county does not require its residents to have their trash picked up.
If they’d like to pay someone to haul their garbage to the county dump, they can. Or they can haul it themselves if they’d like. Or — and it’s astounding to me that this is true in 2023 — they can toss their trash in some random location like a boat and let it sit there, slowly rotting away.
When I talked to the county commission chairman, I asked him about that. He confirmed O’Neal’s story.
“We don’t have mandatory trash pickup,” Jones said.
Back in 2015, when a series of non-fatal bear attacks on people led to the decision to hold the state’s first bear hunt in 20 years, one of those attacks happened in Franklin County. Jones told me the victim of that attack still has scars.
Yet that wasn’t enough at the time to persuade county officials to require mandatory trash pickup. Now, however, attitudes have changed.
As of Tuesday, Jones told me, “We’re considering it. We brought it up at the commission meeting today and the majority of the commission seemed to be on board.”
That, to me, would go a lot farther toward solving their bear problem than holding another hunt. I hope the wildlife commission thinks so too.
As O’Neal pointed out, if you have 1,000 bears and you shoot 900 of them, the remaining 100 are still going to want to gorge themselves on human trash.
A beautiful committee?
I tried reaching Rep. Shoaf to talk to him about that, but he didn’t call me back. Perhaps he was too busy oiling up his shootin’ iron for his next foray into wildlife management.
There’s another legislator named Jason, this time a senator from Sanford named Brodeur, who is pushing a constitutional amendment to make killing animals such as bears the preferred solution to any and all wildlife issues in Florida.
Brodeur is such a friend to the environment that he won a 2021 award from the Florida Home Builders Association. He wrote on his campaign website that he understands “the importance of conserving and protecting Florida’s unique, beautiful committee,” which apparently is much more important than its unique, beautiful wildlife.
Brodeur was the main sponsor for a resolution calling for amending the Florida Constitution to enshrine hunting and fishing as fundamental rights for citizens of the state. As a result of winning near-unanimous legislative support, the amendment will be on the November 2024 ballot, seeking approval from 60 percent of the voters.
The language in the constitutional amendment seems fairly benign until you notice that it also insists that those recreational pursuits are the “preferred means of responsibly managing and controlling fish and wildlife.”
In a recent email he sent O’Neal and Shadix, which she shared with me, Brodeur contended, “Hunting and fishing are the preferred methods of population control because, during the last 50 years, game animals are the only ones that seem to be thriving.”
This claim is, of course, a big load of what bears deposit in the woods.
The population of one non-game species, manatees, soared to around 6,000 before the recent, pollution-fueled die-off. Alligators were on the original endangered species list in 1967, and only once they had rebounded in 1987 did the state allow hunting.
Or, if you need another example, look at the bears.
Thousands of them once roamed every county in Florida until loggers wiped out large swaths of the forest they called home. By 1974, only a few hundred were left. Their future seemed so precarious that the state banned hunting them anywhere other than a handful of counties, then shut it down completely in 1993. By 2015, biologists estimated their population at 4,000.
So, when you vote on this ill-considered measure next year, remember the manatees, gators, and bears. As for the lawmakers pushing this and the bear hunt, well, as folks like to say down in Miami, “We don’t recycle our trash — we re-elect it.”
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