Before Florida Bear Hunt, Euthanizations Soar
Florida will hold its first bear hunt in two decades this weekend to manage the population of the animal that is a nuisance in many neighborhoods and responsible for maulings statewide.
Wildlife authorities agree the best way to keep bears out of neighborhoods is to remove food sources like garbage. State regulations prohibit leaving garbage outside for bears.
But a search of records reveals wildlife authorities rarely are enforcing the regulation, choosing instead to euthanize problem bears.
Tami Compton points to a corner of her Lake Mary backyard. Here, where the neatly trimmed grass gives way to the wild bush of the Wekiva basin, wildlife authorities trapped and euthanized a bear, leaving her carcass overnight as bait for two cubs they said they planned to relocate.
“They pulled her back there by that tree and put the two baby traps right there, hoping that the babies would come from the woods to find their mother, and they’d trap them.”
The family of bears was part of a group that had terrorized the neighborhood since Compton and her husband had moved in five years ago. Last year a neighbor was mauled outside of her home. Compton saw bears daily and after the mauling began wearing a whistle outside but says the bears hardly were afraid of the noise. So wildlife authorities showed up in the Compton’s backyard with a cage and box of donuts to tempt the bears.
“She was pushing on the door, kicking it, tearing up the box that the donuts were in. She was just trying to find a way out.”
After euthanizing the bear wildlife authorities told Compton the bear’s cubs would need to be relocated because their mother had reared them to seek food from the neighborhood’s trash. But when the cubs never emerged from the woods the wildlife authorities told Compton they were old enough to survive on their own and left with the dead bear.
“They came the next morning early before sunlight was out so they could take her away quietly.”
In Florida bear euthanizations are soaring. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has put down nearly 400 since 2007, exceeding the 320 targeted by the weeklong hunt. The Florida black bear was removed from the state’s threatened list in 2012.
It is one way the state agency has intensified its response to an exploding number of calls about bears in neighborhoods. The problem is especially acute in central Florida, home to the state’s largest bear population and where three of four maulings took place in 2013 and 2014.
But a search of records reveals the number of citations issued by Florida Fish and Wildlife for bear-related offenses is not keeping pace with the volume of complaints. The state agency issued 10 citations last year for offenses like leaving food or garbage outside where it could attract the animals, while it fielded more than 6,600 calls about problem bears. One citation was issued in Seminole County, where all of central Florida’s three maulings took place. More than a thousand calls to the state agency came from the county.
“Bears don’t wake up in the den after they’re born looking for remnants of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”
Jeremy Smith lives in the Seminole County community of Lake Mary with his wife and 5-year-old son, two doors down from where a woman was mauled while walking her dog. He says the penalties for feeding bears and leaving trash out are not strong enough.
“If they could actually find the people who were potentially feeding them they need to severely punish them. I mean severely punish them so bad that they don’t ever want to do it again. I think some people think it’s cute. I think they think it’s funny that there’s a little bear in their backyard. That I think is absolutely asinine and they should be penalized heavily for it.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife says the euthanizations are part of a more aggressive approach to bears in neighborhoods. The state agency says relocating problem 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.
Tom Eason is a Florida Fish and Wildlife bear expert. The state agency declined an interview for this story, but he testified earlier this month in Tallahassee at a court hearing in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists aimed at stopping the bear hunt.
“We now will euthanize any bear and destroy, I’m not trying to use that word that’s not a healthy animal. We’re killing and destroying bears that poses an elevated safety risk to people, and we still are moving some bears but fewer.”
He says until recently bear attacks were rare.
“It looks like to me that we have bears that have become very accustomed and are basically living in suburban areas.”
Penalties for feeding bears and leaving trash out range from a warning to $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Florida Fish and Wildlife says citations in the past often were not prosecuted but that the process recently was restructured to emphasize education. The state agency says this will discourage feedings and bears in neighborhoods.
“Here is where the bear charged me.”
Janice Springfield and her husband had lived in their Lake Mary home for more than 30 years and never seen a bear until two years ago, when a large development sprouted across the lake they live on. One evening she stepped outside with their dog, Max.
“All of a sudden I heard this grunt, grunt, grunt, and this huge bear ran out from, well, it’s ferns back there, and came within I’d say five feet of me.”
The bear came within feet of her.
“But my dog’s a Golden Retriever, and he usually barks, barks, barks when something is around. But he just puffed up and gave this one huge bark, and the bear stopped and turned and ran back into the bushes.”
Springfield estimates they’ve had a dozen bears on their property. The couple invested in an electric fence, motion-detecting sprinkler and bear-resistant trash can. She placed numerous calls to Florida Fish and Wildlife, her sheriff’s office and county commissioner about neighbors who weren’t securing their trash. Now the couple hasn’t seen a bear in nearly a year.
“I don’t blame the bears. It’s us, not us leaving food out, but other people leaving food out and making it attractive to a bear.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife estimates the state’s bear population at more than 3,500. The state agency says it will stop the hunt early as the goal is met. More than 2,500 hunters have purchased permits to participate. The hunt starts Saturday.
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