It’s not picnic baskets in the park that are a problem for Yogi Bear and his buddies. It’s your garbage. And your pet food. And your bird feeders.
Since we receive press releases from Florida Fish and Wildlife almost daily, it was disturbing to first receive the news (while we were on the road) that on April 12, a woman who lives in a neighborhood near the Markham Trailhead was “injured during an encounter with a bear in the yard of her Lake Mary home. The FWC responded to the scene, and the investigation is ongoing.”
To be followed by daily reports, including, “Five days after a bear attack, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) remains active in the neighborhood where the incident occurred. The FWC had to take action against bears that demonstrated they were habituated to people and human food. In order to maintain public safety, these bears were put down.”
In all, FWC shot seven Florida black bears in that area. And as we returned home this weekend, we saw an FWC officer parked at the Markham Trailhead.
This bear attack comes on the heels of one in December off Markham Woods Road, making two attacks on humans by bears in the past five months. Prior to that, no one had been attacked by a Florida black bear, something we were proud to be able to tell hikers. No more. In fact, hikers in Wekiwa Springs State Park, Lower Wekiva River Preserve, Rock Springs Run State Reserve, and Seminole State Forest need to be more vigilant than ever. Although none of these state parks require it, you’d be foolish to camp without your food stored in a bear canister or bear bagged. We’ve encountered more bears on public lands in the Wekiva River Basin in the past three years than in our lifetimes.
For decades, Floridians have been warned against feeding alligators, since a fed gator has no fear of humans and is a dangerous creature indeed when it won’t run away. But the state’s messages about feeding bears – perhaps too subtle for homeowners? – hasn’t gotten through.
Last year, we had a standoff with a bear near the Markham Trailhead. We retreated, since it would not. It was obvious the bear wasn’t afraid of us, and, in fact, it followed us. Since then, we’ve watched a pasture being turned into another subdivision, right across the road from a remote piece of Wekiwa Springs State Park which is bordered by the subdivision where the bear attack took place. Another subdivision under construction tunnels into the forest down towards the Wekiva River.
Developers don’t care if the land they’re turning into half-million dollar homes is bear habitat. The counties don’t care, since it adds more homes to the tax rolls. And the newly minted homeowners move in from places where bears are much less common, and aren’t given a set of instructions that they need to keep trash in bear-proof containers and pet food inside. So the bears find another buffet, and become aggressive.
It’s always the bear’s fault.
The National Forests in Florida already have rules on the books that campers and backpackers must keep their food in bear-proof containers or bear-bag while camping. Yet there are no such rules for homeowners in the same areas. And so the problem perpetuates.
This not a new issue. My boss, 14 years ago, learned pretty quickly upon moving to a neighborhood adjoining Wekiwa Springs State Park that he couldn’t leave pet food on the porch. The bears tore out his screens to get to it.
Living in bear habitat should mean being responsible stewards of that habitat, not having a gun-toting wildlife officer guarding your neighborhood. According to FWC’s Bear Management Plan, adopted in 2012, “The current FWC Nuisance Black Bear Policy relies heavily on complainant’s personal responsibility for eliminating attractants and thereby reducing or eliminating bear problems.”
The problem is, not all homeowners take personal responsibility.
It’s time that all Florida counties with hefty bear populations – and the FWC knows where these areas are – adopt ordinances, with penalties for non-compliance, that trash and other foodstuffs be kept out of the reach of bears. Offer bear-proof trash bins to residents in neighborhoods where bears are a problem – as two counties in the Florida Panhandle, Franklin and Wakulla, have – but insist that homeowners use them.
FWC already has a rule on the books, although it’s buried deep in the Florida Administrative Code. 68A-4.001(3) Intentionally placing food or garbage, allowing the placement of food or garbage, or offering food or garbage in such a manner that it attracts black bears, foxes, raccoons, or sandhill cranes and thereby creates a public nuisance is prohibited.
Because of this rule, you can anonymously report offenders in your neighborhood. If you see behaviors that lead to the intentional feeding of bears, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). If you supply relevant information you may be eligible for a reward, and you can remain anonymous.