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Conversations: Seminole County Aims To Keep Bears Out Of Neighborhoods

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Wildlife authorities check a dead bear during Florida's bear hunt. Photo by Amy Green

Beginning this week, Seminole County is enforcing a new ordinance requiring residents of its bear-weary neighborhoods west of Interstate 4 to secure their trash.

The ordinance is the first statewide aimed at problem bears in neighborhoods. Wildlife authorities describe the area as the “epicenter of human-bear conflict.”

90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green wanted to know how the ordinance will be enforced.

She joins us now. Welcome!

Green: Happy to be here.

Byrne: The ordinance requires residents to secure their trash in garages, sheds or bear-resistant trash bins. They’re not allowed to wheel it to the curb on trash day before 5 a.m. and must remove the empty bins by 8 p.m., but residents with bear-resistant bins are exempt from this requirement.

Amy Green, how do leaders plan on enforcing the ordinance?

Green: Well, they’re not planning on having any kind of trash police patrol neighborhoods. No one will be checking curbs at 4:45 am.

Leaders are emphasizing education over enforcement. They say as residents understand why this is important they will secure their own trash.

Altamonte Springs City Manager Frank Martz says education is more effective than enforcement.

“What you have to do is get people to comply. So writing citations isn’t the way to do that. It is through education and working with them. Citations don’t keep people safe. Changed behaviors keep people safe.”

Now, Martz says enforcement in Altamonte Springs is on hold while the city spends 33-thousand dollars to retrofit garbage trucks so they can pick up the bigger and heavier bear-resistant trash bins. He says that should be done by April.

Byrne: Where in Seminole County does the ordinance apply?

Green: Primarily in neighborhoods west of I-4 that have experienced the most bear activity. There is an area east of the interstate that is under review, and enforcement there also is on hold.

Byrne: Amy Green, there was a push to require bear-resistant trash bins. Where is that now?

Green: Right, well the ordinance does not do that. It requires that trash be secured, and as you said it can be secured in garages, sheds or bear-resistant bins.

Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine pushed the failed measure that would have required the bins, but other county leaders balked at the cost. He calls the ordinance a good step but says it doesn’t go far enough.

“Where the concern is that if you do not do it universally, if everyone in the neighborhood doesn’t have the same can or in this case abides by the same rules, the bears are still going to come into the neighborhood. And you, your pets are still going to be at risk.”

That’s because bears enter neighborhoods in search of food, and often they find the biggest meals in people’s trash. They can smell food from more than a mile away, and so if everyone secures their trash except for one person bears will continue entering the neighborhood.

Byrne: So Amy Green, what role will wildlife authorities play in this?

Green: Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constatine says if bears are a problem wildlife authorities will respond, and if they determine someone is responsible that person will be cited.

Violators face a hundred-dollar fine under the ordinance.

Now, state penalties for feeding bears and leaving trash out range from a warning to five-thousand-dollar fine and up to five years in prison. But through a search of public records I’ve found these citations often don’t happen.

Just since Florida’s bear hunt in October the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received nearly two-thousand calls about bears, many of them about problem bears, and issued one citation. That was in Lee County for feeding bears or leaving trash out. The agency issued about 30 warnings.

Byrne: Aren’t wildlife authorities euthanizing problem bears?

Green: That’s right. I found that often rather than cite people Florida Fish and Wildlife euthanizes problem bears.

Again, just since the bear hunt the agency euthanized 26 bears, most of them because it says they were a nuisance or posed safety risk.

Florida Fish and Wildlife says the euthanizations are part of a more aggressive approach to bears in neighborhoods. The agency says relocating the bears is not as effective because when the animals are accustomed to seeking food in neighborhoods they will continue the behavior either in their new location, or they will return to the neighborhood they know.

So the best solution really is controlling attractants like trash. And remember, the bear hunt had a different goal. It was aimed at managing the state’s growing bear population not addressing problem bears.

Byrne: So Amy Green, we started out talking about enforcement of this new ordinance. What is the bottom line?

Green: Right, well leaders seem to be saying education over enforcement. Basically it sounds like they’ll be relying on tattle-tell neighbors. Everyone has one.

Byrne: I’ve been speaking with 90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green. Thanks for joining us!

Green: You’re welcome.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »