The local Grayton community was astir a few weeks ago with the reappearance of an old familiar furry face: a black bear that has long been known to frequent the area.
The bear surfaces only occasionally, but appears frequently enough that most locals call her Pam — from a distance, of course.
When Pam was seen rummaging through Dumpsters at a Grayton shopping center July 18, her picture, along with her cub, began showing up on the Internet as onlookers began to gather.
However, Pam was just searching for a free meal for herself and her cub, and an audience was not what she desired.
Pam and her cub retreated up a tree, where their pictures continued to be snapped and posted online.
"This is not a good situation," said Stan Kirkland, a public information coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The best thing for bears is to stay in the woods. That keeps the bear out of harm’s way. If you see a bear, we recommend as quickly as possible back off and leave them alone and they will go their way."
But since that day, the situation seems to have gone from bad to worse.
Local bear impacts
Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council reported “some sadness” on the group’s Facebook page Aug. 12: “There have been several bears in the Point Washington State Forest lately including a male and a mom and two cubs. Last night a small bear was hit by a car close to the intersection of 30A and 283. Witnesses believe it was one of the cubs. Please keep a special eye out for our animal residents at night while you're driving — for your safety and theirs. The bears are active eating berries and moving about.”
Kirklandconfirmed the incident and said the cub was injured so badly it had to be euthanized. And incidents like this aren’t uncommon, Kirkland said, as more than 300 bears were killed on Florida roadways in 2012.
A couple of weeks prior, Shannon Wallace, who lives in Santa Rosa Beach, posted an account of a close encounter with a bear near Sugar Road. "So I'm squatting down in the driveway working on my Jeep and in the corner of my eye I see what I think is a dog or cat in the distance. When I turn and look again there is an adult black bear coming straight for me in a four legged gallop. The bear was chest high on all fours and weighed 600 to 700 pounds. I did not budge and he ran between me and my house within about 4 feet. I don’t think he even saw me. The bear stood up in the back of my neighbor’s yard and he was about 7-feet tall. Yea, I got lucky and needed no coffee for the rest of the morning."
Kirkland said Florida has never had a documented bear attack, nor has our surrounding states.
"There has never been a predatory attack," he said. "They aren't a threat to people and if you leave them alone, they will go back where they came from."
However, they have been known to kill goats, pigs, chickens, and occasionally, a dog.
"That's why it is not a good idea to have them in neighborhoods," said Kirkland.
The bear facts: "They were here first"
The bear population in the state of Florida is estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000, and that number is on the rise.
"Twenty-five years ago, we were picking up about 100 bears a year; now we are picking up about 200 to 250 a year that have become nuisances," said Kirkland. "That's not a perfect indicator, but we know the population is increasing due to the number of calls and complaints that are up dramatically."
According to FWC reports, in 2002 in Florida's Northwest region, which extends from Escambia to Jefferson County, FWC received a total of 79 calls about bears. In 2012, the calls went up to 1,671.
In this first six months of 2004, Okaloosa County had 45 calls and Walton County had one. In 2012 there were 36 calls from Walton and 327 from Okaloosa.
“These are significant increases,” Kirkland says as he acknowledges that black bears are native to Florida.
"We are just trying to figure out how do we live and co-exist with them. They were here first," he said.
There was a relative absence of bears in this area in the early 1970s, with an estimated 500 bears, based on the best available information, and the black bear was placed on the threatened list. Due to their prolific increase, they are no longer on the list.
"They have increased statewide," said Kirkland, "and we are starting to see them north of 98 in Milton and Navarre. And they are expanding their range south of 98 in Navarre."
In fact, on a recent weekend, FWC staff responded to an incident in Santa Rosa County where a bear had gotten south of 98. U.S. Highway 98 had to be shut down as an officer darted the bear to immobilize and remove it to Eglin.
How you can help
As a general rule, the FWC does not relocate bears.
"There is no good place to put them. There is increased mortality when they are moved due to being in unfamiliar territory or encountering other bears that are unfriendly, or they tend to return to their original habitat. They tend to come right back to their territory. We have seen them travel hundreds of miles and be back to their original territory in two or three days," he said. "So, they are not moved often."
Kirkland tells of a beekeeper in the Point Washington area that had a nuisance bear, which was moved, but it soon returned.
Any bear that is handled in a nuisance situation, the FWC tags.
As for a solution to solving the problem of nuisance bears, Kirkland said the FWC is trying to get businesses to contract with waste providers to make it an option to bear-proof garbage cans. He said they cost more in areas where they are available, but they do work.
Secondly, there are bear-proof Dumpsters that are available to bigger businesses.
"As bears have increased they have become very astute at getting an easy meal," said Kirkland. "That's bad on several fronts as it brings them in close proximity to people..."