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Florida Black Bear
Ursus americanus var. floridanus
Florida black bear, photographed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Collier County, in October 2013

 

This is one creature, that despite its massive size, you rarely see, especially in the eastern part of the state. The Florida black bear, Ursus americanus var. floridanus, once numbered about 12,000 and roamed throughout most of Florida and parts of southern Alabama and Georgia.

According to a 2019 estimate, black bears now numbers about 4,050 (some estimates put the number much lower) and roams only a fraction of its former territory (about 45 percent, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision). The good news in those numbers is that estimates put the number of Florida bears in low hundreds during the 1970s, making it something of a comeback success.

The FWC no longer lists the bear as threatened, but it still is illegal to kill or injure a bear, or possess bear parts. It did conduct what was supposed to be a weeklong season in 2015 but shut it down after only two days. Hunters killed 304 bears during those two days, including some nursing mothers and undersized juveniles, according to reports. The FWC hasn't allowed a hunt since, but might do so in 2020.

The human toll on the bear population that year was so severe — nearly 20 percent of the estimated total — caused more than a dozen environmental and animal-rights organizations to petition for the bear to be put on the endangered species list in 2016. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the list, declined the petition in 2017, finding that Florida's bear population sufficiently healthy.

 

 

The problem for the bear population, as it is for most large animals, is loss of habitat.

It's estimated that a single bear needs 400,000 acres of land and a variety of different habitats, from scrub to swamp, in order to survive. Those 400,000 acres are becoming more and more scarce as Florida's human population expands. And as both bear and human numbers increase, the chances of conflict between the two also increase. One statistic that shows the conflict: collissions with cars and trucks are biggest cause of bear deaths. The FWC has divided the state into bear management units the correlate to current bear ranges as part of an effort to protect the creature. It conducts a education programs aimed at limiting conflicts.

The south management unit includes all of South Florida from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Its estimated population: 1,040 black bears, with most of the population concentrated in the western portion of the unit. Black bears occasionally will roam as far east as extreme western Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Generally, members of the same species will be larger the farther north you go, smaller, the farther south. It's called Bergmann's Rule, and is based on the idea that bigger body mass helps animals endure colder temperatures. We see that in Florida with white-tailed deer, which are substantially smaller in the Sunshine State than they are in points north. Florida's black bears, however, are about as large or even larger as their counterparts elsewhere in North America. They can be 5 or 6 feet long, 3 feet tall at the shoulder; an adult female can weigh between 150 to 300 pounds; a male between 250 and 400 pounds. The largest bears ever recorded in Florida weighed 740 and 760 pounds, respectively, and were found in Seminole County in 2015. The largest female weighed 400 pounds and was found dead in Liberty County.

Although bears are omnivores, their diet is mostly vegetarian — fruits, nuts and berries, grasses and leaves — with a smattering of insects and a little meat thrown in. They will eat carrion. Bears, like the three mentioned above, will reach abnormally large size when they have access to garbage and human food, which has a much higher calorie count than their normal diet.

Their weight can vary as much as 25 percent during the year. A bear typically takes in 5,000 calories a day; in the fall that number will increase to 20,000 a day, preparing for winter, when it will "den" and when food is less available. Come spring, it will resume its normal diet.

Bears are shy animal, most active at dawn and dusk depending on the season, although the FWC says bears that live on the fringe of human populations tend to be more nocturnal, when human activity is at a low point.

And despite Florida's mild winters, the black bear hibernates from December to April. Florida's largest bear population is in and around the Ocala National Forest in the central part of the state.

Bears can be 5 or 6 feet long, 3 feet tall at the shoulder; an adult female can weigh between 150 to 300 pounds; a male between 250 and 400 pounds. Although bears are omnivores, their diet is mostly vegetarian — fruits, nuts and berries — with a smattering of insects and a little meat thrown in.

It is a shy animal, most active at dawn and dusk depending on the season, although the FWC says bears that live on the fringe of human populations tend to be more nocturnal. when human activity is at a low point. And despite Florida's mild winters, the black bear hibernates from December to April. Florida's largest bear population is in and around the Ocala National Forest in the central part of the state. We spotted this one near the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

FWC Florida Bear Range and Management Units 2019

 

In summer male bears spend most their time hunting for the ladies of the species, while the ladies themselves are spending their time foraging. Generally speaking, females become sexually mature between the ages of three and five years and will, uh, bear cubs every other year. They'll give birth to two to four cubs during the following winter, each weighing about a half pound. They'll remain with mom through the following winter, but will begin to disperse come spring at about 16 months. The oldest known Florida black bear was 20 years.

 

black bear near road

 

 
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