by Sharon LaPlante
The Florida black bear, Ursus americanus floridanus, is found in heavily wooded terrain, particularly hardwood swamp, cypress swamp, and undisturbed upland forest. The majority of Florida is far too developed to support bear populations; however, there are populations in remote areas of the state. We are lucky enough to have one of those areas here within the 93 square miles of publicly owned land between U.S. Highway 19 (between Aripeka and Chassahowitzka) and the Gulf in Hernando & Citrus Counties.
Florida black bears do not hibernate, but rather go into a semi-hibernation state known as torpor. In Florida they may do so only during extremely severe winter weather. Torpor tends to be more common in females who den when they are producing cubs. The female may stay in her den for a few months. A den may be made in a variety of situations, including logs, stumps, tree cavities, caves, banks & culverts. Black bears climb well, and some dens may be well above ground level. Many times a temporary nest, or bed, is made on the ground for resting or napping. The nest is generally a depression found in a palmetto thicket, or tangle of vines, lined with pine straw and leaves.
Black bears feed throughout the day and night; however, they are most active during the night and early morning hours. They are omnivorous. Plant material makes up 80% of their diet, which consists of acorns, berries, fruits, palmetto berries, grass, honey, seeds, nuts, buds, roots, tubers, the inner bark of twigs, hearts of palm, insects, grubs, lizards, snakes, frogs, fish, rodents, armadillos, bird eggs, wild hog, deer, and carrion. When they are foraging they can be very destructive. They dig and claw at tree stumps or rotting logs in search of insects, and destroy cabbage palms and palmettos in order to get at the tender heart. Bear foraging is unmistakable. They will get quite accustomed to eating pet food and garbage if it is left out, and will make a nuisance of themselves. If you live in bear country keep pet food and garbage put away. Electric fencing is 99% successful for deterring bears. Do not feed bears...a fed bear is a dead bear. To report a nuisance bear call the Florida Game and Fish Commission at (352) 732-1225.
Females are able to reproduce at three years of age, and generally do so by the time they are 4 years old. Females breed in alternate years during June & July. The female's embryos undergo delayed implantation for 5-6 months. The embryos are implanted in the uterus in mid-winter, and gestation lasts from 6-8 weeks. Twins and occasionally triplets are born in January or February. The cubs are born hairless, blind, and weighing only 6-8 ounces. At about 40 days old their eyes open, they are well furred, their first teeth appear, and they weigh about 2 pounds. Cubs do not leave the den until about two months of age, and continue to nurse from their mother throughout the summer, and fall. By the time they leave their mother, during the second year, they weigh about 100 pounds. Adult females weigh 90 to 300 pounds, and males weigh 125 to 500 pounds or more.
A Florida black bear's life span is generally 15-20 years in the wild, and 25-30 years in captivity. Age is determined by the amount of tooth wear, or the number of growth rings in the roots of canine teeth, or premolars. The growth ring method is only accomplished by the removal of a tooth.
In Florida black bear ranges extend from 1 to 100 square miles. Adult males generally range farther than females. They have been known to wander as far as 300 miles within a few days.
Florida black bear numbers are reported to be between 500 and 1500, and occupy 5.7 million acres in eight distinct regions in the state - Elgin, Apalachicola, Osceola, Ocala, St. Johns, Chassahowitzka, Highlands, and Big Cypress. That is about 17% of our country's total population of black bears. Early this century the number of black bears in Florida numbered roughly 11,000.
The Florida Game & Freshwater Fish Commission lists black bears as 'threatened'. The hunting of Florida black bears was finally banned in 1994.
There has never been a reported case of a black bear attacking a human in Florida. Their hearing and sense of smell is so acute that they usually retreat before people are even aware that they are there. A black bear interaction in the wild, although rare, could possibly be intimidating because the bear may stand upright to get a better look at you, or it may snort or make loud blowing sounds because it is nervous (not because it is trying to intimidate you).
The greatest threat to Florida black bears is loss of habitat. The second major threat is vehicle deaths. The Florida black bear is an 'umbrella' or 'key' species and is in dire need of our protection and conservation. Not only will we save habitat for bears, but we will be saving habitat for the entire food chain, from bears to beetles. If we can save the Florida black bear we can save some of wild Florida for the future.
Join the Habitat for Bears Campaign by contacting Christine Small at (352) 735-6909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or
Laurie McDonald at (813) 821-9585 or email@example.com, or visit their web site at: http://www.defenders.org.
If you see a Florida black bear call the Bear Hotline with the following information: the exact location of the sighting, the time of the sighting, a description of what you saw, any photographs taken, any casts of footprints, or other signs. Call (352) 596-4157 in Hernando and (352) 382-2322 in Citrus.
Brown Ph. D., Larry N. Mammals of Florida. Windward Publishing: Miami, FL. 1997
Gingerich, Larry L. Florida's Fabulous Mammals. World Publications: Tampa, FL. 1994
Humphrey, Stephen R., editor. Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida, Vol. 1: Mammals. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, FL. 1992
Murie, Olaus J. A Field Guide to Animal Tracks. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, Ma. 1974
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