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FWC Moves Forward On Plan to Manage, Conserve Florida Black Bears

florida-black-bear-250The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is moving ahead on its plan to manage and conserve Florida black bears so they are never again at risk of extinction.

With the bear population rebounding from about 300 to 3,000 over the past 40 years, the FWC recognizes Florida’s conservation success with bears and recommends the state’s largest land mammal be removed from the threatened species list.

The Commissioners today (Feb. 9) discussed the draft Florida Black Bear Management Plan, a proposed black bear conservation rule, and heard public comments and suggestions.  Final action on the draft bear management plan and rule was not taken today.  The Commissioners are scheduled to take up a revision of the draft plan and the rule during their June meeting.

Pointing out a paragraph in the draft bear plan tracking the fall and rise of Florida’s bear population, Commissioner Brian Yablonski said, “We had 750,000 people in Florida in 1914 and we had roughly 3,000 bears, and here we are at the last data point in 2002 and we’ve got 17 million people in 2002 and about 3,000 bears.  That’s an amazing success story.  I think this is a very positive day.”

Commissioner Richard Corbett said, “The major focus is how we manage and protect with a major population increase of bears and a major population increase of humans.”

The draft bear management plan, released on Nov. 10, 2011, was followed by a two-month period of public input, which included public workshops in Bristol, Naples, DeLand and Gainesville.  Floridians offered feedback at the workshops, online where the draft plan was posted at MyFWC.com/Bear, and by mailing written comments.  About 2,500 comments were received from private citizens and stakeholder groups on the draft plan.  Additionally, people had the opportunity to speak at today’s meeting.

The public commented on issues such as updating bear population estimates, reducing human-bear conflicts and continuing the review of land-use changes impacting bear habitat.

Members of the public also expressed opinions on whether to allow bear hunting in Florida and whether taking bears off the state’s threatened species list would impact bear conservation.

FWC staff is recommending following many of the public’s suggestions to change, clarify and improve the overall plan.

Commissioners also gave tentative approval to a proposed FWC rule that would make it unlawful to injure or kill bears, continuing protections similar to the ones granted to bears as a state threatened species.  The rule additionally commits the FWC to working with landowners and regulating agencies to guide future land use to be compatible with objectives of the bear plan.

The draft plan proposes:

Seven bear management units (BMUs) to reflect areas where Florida’s black bear populations are concentrated.  The units would offer the opportunity for local input on managing bear populations and habitat.  For example, the Central BMU, based in Ocala National Forest, has the largest estimated population of about 1,000 bears; the East Panhandle BMU encompasses Apalachicola National Forest, with roughly 600 bears; and the South Central BMU in Glades and Highlands counties has about 175 bears.

Creation of “Bear Smart Communities” in areas of high bear activity.  A “Bear Smart Community” would involve its residents, businesses, public agencies and schools in educating people about how to live in bear country and respond appropriately to human-bear conflicts.  For example, the U.S. Air Force’s Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa County switched to bear-proof garbage cans and dumpsters, instituted an active education program and trained personnel in appropriate responses to human-bear conflicts.  After two years of these efforts, Hurlburt experienced a 70-percent reduction in human-bear conflicts.

The Florida black bear is among the 62 wildlife species that soon will join the list of species, like the bald eagle, already under an FWC management plan.  Florida’s new threatened species conservation model requires that management plans be created for all species that have been state-listed and that plans be updated at specified intervals.

Those management plans give citizens an active role in Florida’s efforts to conserve its diverse wildlife for future generations.

For more information about bears, go to MyFWC.com/Bear.

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