FORT MYERS, Fla. - Black bears are on the move in southwest Florida, roaming the peninsula in search of high-calorie food to pack on weight for the coming lean winter months.
It’s not that black bears here have to hibernate to avoid the cold, but they do go into a lethargic state — mostly because there is less food in the winter to fill their massive bellies.
Experts say a 700-pound bear can eat as much as 20,000 calories a day, which is enough for several human adults, though black bears in Florida typically range from 250 to 450 pounds for males and 125 to 250 pounds for females.
They’re roaming the landscape now that fall is here and winter is approaching.
"This is generally the time when bears become more active in Florida," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
FWC is in charge of protecting and managing Florida’s black bears. The agency estimates that there are just over 4,000 bears in the Sunshine State, with most bears living in clusters on wild lands like Big Cypress National Preserve or Ocala National Forest.
Road kills are the No. 1 documented cause of death for black bears in Florida, with 241 vehicle deaths in 2018, according to FWC records.
More than 300 bears were killed during a 2015 hunt, which drew international attention and gave the tourism-based state a black eye in public. The hunt came after FWC held several public meetings around the state to take public input on how to better control bear numbers.
FWC is again considering the future management of black bears and reached out to the public earlier this week for input on how to best handle a growing bear population.
More bears mean more road kills and chance encounters in the wild or even a neighborhood preserve.
"If you see a bear in the wild, enjoy the experience, but keep your distance and don’t approach any closer. You should allow the bear the chance to continue its path, but if your presence changes the bear’s behavior, you should back away slowly. It is always a good idea to carry bear spray when in bear country, but be sure it is somewhere you can easily grab it if needed, and pay attention to wind direction," said FWC bear biologist Sarah Barrett.
FWC breaks up bear territories into seven different populations. Lee and Collier counties are in the south region. Bear calls to FWC have also increased over the past decade, ranging from 97 in the south region in 2010 to 920 in 2018.
It is illegal to intentionally feed bears.
To keep bears away from your home, follow these FWC tips:
- Secure household garbage in a sturdy shed, garage or a wildlife-resistant container.
- Put household garbage out on the morning of pickup rather than the night before.
- Secure commercial garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters.
- Protect gardens, bee yards, compost and livestock with electric fencing.
- Encourage your homeowner association or local government to institute ordinances to require that trash be secured from bears.
- Feed pets indoors or bring the dishes in after feeding.
- Clean grills and store them in a secure place.
- Pick ripe fruit from trees and remove fallen fruit from the ground.
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