Cohabitating with Black Bears in Florida
Black bear having a snack.
Photo by Getty Images
While some are arguing over the ethics of a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy’s killing of a black bear in June, others are saying, “Wait a minute: Did you say a bear In South Florida?”
Yes, you heard that right. While many of us accept the idea of alligators and iguanas around us, the thought of a black bear in the backyard is a bit of a shock.
The Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is a subspecies of the American black bear and is the only species of bear in Florida. It is estimated that 4,050 black bears live in Florida, down from an estimated 11,000 that lived throughout the state when it had ample forested habitats.
With Florida’s population on the rise and an increase in urbanization of traditionally remote areas, bears and people are having more encounters than ever. The bears are now covering approximately 45% of the species’ original range.
While their genetic and skeletal characteristics are markedly different from other subspecies, Florida black bears don’t look different. Like other bear species, they are large and powerful mammals. They have rounded ears, short tails, five-toed feet (just like us) and large canine teeth. Also like us, black bears walk flat-footed with all five toes on the ground. They have sharp claws that allow them to easily climb trees or dig for food. They can run up to 35 miles per hour; for context, Usain Bolt barely exceeded 27 miles per hour when he set the world record in the 100-meter sprint.
Female bears can weigh 150 to 300 pounds, and males can weigh 250 to 450 pounds. Both stand 5 to 6 feet tall. The largest male Florida black bears were found in 2015 in Seminole County, weighing in at 740 and 760 pounds. The two largest females were 460 pounds, found in Lake County in 2019, and 400 pounds in Liberty County in 2007; they were both killed in car crashes, a common occurrence amid increased habitat fragmentation.
Bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both vegetable and animal products. Black bears enjoy acorns, insects, berries, saw palmetto and sabal palm fruits, armadillos, and, of course, honey. For a long time it was thought that bears were only in search of honey when they dug into beehives, but biologists now believe that they are seeking out both the sweetness of the honey and the protein of the bee larvae.
Bears that feed on human-supplied foods, including garbage and pet food, can become abnormally large — likely the explanation for the record-size bears. The weight of a bear fluctuates throughout the year. As food availability is low during the winter months, bears can lose up to 25% of their body weight, and they replenish in the spring as plants and foliage grow back. While they don’t have a true hibernation, Florida black bears do experience winter “denning,” a period of reduced activity.
The Florida black bear is an essential part of our ecosystem, and their conservation is critical. The population is growing, but a lot of work remains to be done. If you live in an area with bears, it is important to take precautions to reduce the number of interactions. Keep in mind that a bear encounter does not necessarily mean you are in danger.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offers the following pointers for living in Bear Country:
Human food is not for bears. Bears are driven by their need to eat, and they can smell food odors over a mile away. They are highly intelligent, and if they become accustomed to getting food from a particular source, such as your garbage can, they will frequent your neighborhood in search of more food. It’s important to cover your garbage can with a caddy or keep it in a shed, and put up an electric fence to protect livestock or beeyards. These safety measures reduce the likelihood of bears crossing busy highways, saving them from tragic deaths.
Scare that bear! If a bear enters your yard, be sure you are in a safe area, then scare it. Banging pots and pans, yelling loudly, or using an air horn should encourage the bear to leave. Once you are certain the bear is gone, look whether something is attracting the bear to your property, and handle it accordingly.
Some additional precautions to keep bears away:
- Put out garbage the morning of pickup rather than the night before.
- Feed pets indoors. If that's not possible, bring in dishes immediately after feeding.
- Clean grills and store them in a locked and secure place, like a shed or garage.
- Pick ripe fruit from trees, and pick up any fruit that falls.
In general, bears do not pose a threat to humans. They are shy animals. According to an FWC officer, “From all the training we’ve had on them, they are super to themselves and very scared of people.”
Follow the guidelines above, and we can cohabitate safely with the black bears and help keep them off the endangered list.