Black bears are native to Florida, which is a fact many tourists or new residents are unaware of and surprised to learn.

Unfortunately, some may become aware by encountering one.

Florida Fish and Wildlife's Jordan Green travels the Northwest Florida region speaking about our black bears and how to live in harmony with them.

"The last estimate in 2016 is that statewide we have 4,050 bears," said Green. "For this area in the western Panhandle, the estimate is that we have 120."

Green said that only 15 people have ever been injured in the state by bears.

Timid by nature, black bears are more likely to take flight than fight, taking refuge under cover or up a tree, Green said.

Their diet is mostly vegetarian, but they will eat other types of food if available. Their sense of smell is excellent allowing them to pick up scents up to a mile away.

The most important message Green tries to impart to his audiences is that it's human behavior that turns bears into problems.

"Bears think with their stomachs and garbage left out overnight lures them," he said.

Garbage is not the only lure, though, as bird feeders and grills can be lures also.

"It's illegal to feed bears, and it is also illegal to unintentionally feed bears," said Green. "If you knowingly leave out garbage when you know there is a bear around, you can be cited."

The use of metal garbage lids and doors instead of plastic snap-on lids help to deter them, as well as sliding doors secured with a slip.

Bear-resistant cans may be purchased, and some counties may have them available to rent.

For those who do encounter a bear in their yard, Green urges them to scare the animal off.

"Bears come from a world of dominance and submission and you don't want them to see you as submissive," said Green. "If you do nothing they come to think of your yard as their territory."

Green said clanging pots and pans and turning on sprinklers can be effective.

If outside and unexpectedly encounter a bear, don't run and don't play dead, he said.

"You can't outrun them and they will eat things that are slow enough to catch," he said. "Your response should be yelling, waving your arms, and gathering ... things around you to make yourself look bigger then slowly back away. If a bear should attack, fight back."

Green said the area's recent cold weather would probably not make our bears go to their den for long.

"Florida black bears don't hibernate, but they get sleepy when it's cold and food is scarce, so they will sleep more, but they can wake up if the temperatures warm," he said. "But if it is a female, they will go to den if they are going to give birth."

Black bears breed in June and July with females breeding with multiple bears, Green said. Their offspring are born in February and stay with mom for a year and a half.

In pre-Columbian times, the estimate is that the state was home to 11,000 black bears, he said. However, in the 1950s those numbers dropped to 500 statewide resulting in the state listing the bears as threatened in 1974.

"Their rebound is a success story," said Green.

Following the success story, the bears were removed from the endangered list in 2012.

"However, they are still protected," he said.

Therefore, there is no established hunting season for them, but specific short-term hunts can be held.

Call the FWC Regional office at 265-3676 to report an issue with bears, or 911 for emergencies.

For any community or HOA that wants to become "bearwise," since 2007 more than $1 million has been given out to counties and HOAs that take appropriate action to secure their garbage and deter bears.

"Conflict drops when you secure," Green said. "Most bear conflict is on the coastline due to more people with unsecured garbage and available habitat."

Green is the FWC's western Panhandle area bear biologist.

"I want to see the program expand," he said. "There are a lot of renters who don't know. I want to go into schools and talk. We are looking to get people to co-habitat. Florida black bears are native and only found here. It's the state's largest land mammal."

Green's next scheduled time to speak in this area and it will be at Topsail Preserve on April 28.