Ursa Major

03.22.14

In Florida, Sprawling Humans Confront the Bears Who Lived There First

Officials are worried about the sharp growth in human-bear interactions—and a vicious attack—in a state where the number of people has tripled. Can ‘bear-awareness’ keep the peace?

It was just a regular day in Longwood, Fla., and Marshall Adler had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary as he waited for his garage door to open so he could take his dog, Lola, for a morning walk.

As the door rose, his nonchalance turned to shock. There, three paces away, was a black bear—“a big-ass, 400-pound bear”—standing 8 feet tall on its hind legs, staring him down. Adler seized Lola by the collar and slammed his hand against the garage door closer. “The door was going down so S-L-O-W-L-Y. I was afraid the bear was going to get in the garage and there could be a big horrible situation,” he recalls.

The bear retreated, but became a fixture around the neighborhood, raiding garbage cans, taking dips in back-yard pools. Months later, Adler was in his yard late one night for Lola to answer a call of nature when he heard “this unbelievable heavy breathing.”

The next morning, he found evidence that a bear had been sitting on a branch right above where he had been standing. He no longer takes Lola out at night. “My dog has just had to learn good bladder and bowel control,” he jokes.

Such sightings are not uncommon in 32799, the most active ZIP Code in Florida for close encounters of the ursine kind. It’s just a 15-minute drive north of downtown Orlando yet offers rural tranquility, with generously proportioned lots dotted with pines and oaks.

But in December, it was home to the worst bear attack recorded in Florida. Susan Chalfant, 54 years old, suffered severe facial injuries when a bear rushed from the bushes as she walked her dogs outside her home in a subdivision one night, circled and lunged at her several times, then knocked her to the ground and mauled her. She staggered to a neighbor’s house, her face so bloodied that he barely recognized her.

“That bear was trying to kill me. It just kept coming,” Chalfant later told wildlife officers.

Concerned by the growing number of human-bear interactions, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has requested an extra $645 million from the state to add more agents to deal with conflicts, hire biologists, conduct a statewide bear census based on DNA retrieval and testing, and stepped-up public outreach to make residents more “bear aware.”

“You guys are meant to be protecting our wildlife, not killing them off,” one woman told officers at the DeLand meeting. “Bears have rights, too.”

Just 300 wild black bears roamed Florida in the 1970s; by 2002, when the most recent survey was conducted, there were an estimated 3,000, prompting their removal from the list of threatened species in 2012. There could be as many as 5,000 now. Though a conservation success story, the more than tenfold growth in bears has been accompanied by a near-tripling of the state’s human population, to some 20 million now from 7 million in 1974.

Urban sprawl has taken over previously exclusive wildlife haunts, pushing man and bear together—and with human habitation come trash cans, garage refrigerators, bird feeders, pet-food bowls and outdoor grills, all brimming with a lip-smacking menu of easy pickings.

Encounters between humans and bears have risen accordingly. In 2010, the state received 4,196 bear-related calls. Last year, there were a record 6,726, covering “nuisance” behavior, property damage, injuries to bears, and injuries to humans.

The rise in incidents has caused increasing agitation within affected communities, where some demand that “something has to be done” about the bears, but others counter that more needs to be done about the humans.

“If people don’t want to live near bears, then why move into these areas?” asks Dawn Jarman, a Longwood resident. “There’s no reason we can’t live in harmony with them, if only people would stop their foolish behavior. Drive down the street at 11 p.m. and their trash is out, garage doors are up, refrigerators are on show. It’s like ‘Hey, over here Mr. Bear’ then they complain when they get visitors.”

Of the nearly 36,000 incidents tallied over the last 32 years by the FWC, only 1 percent involved humans being threatened or injured. Almost one-third involved bears raiding garbage cans.

“We all know that feeling of ‘Ugh, I don’t want to cook tonight, I’m going to go to the drive-through.’ Well that’s kind of how bears think: ‘I don’t really want to spend hours picking berries in the forest when I can just go to a garbage can or a refrigerator and get my calories in one sitting,’” says Kaitlin O’Connell, Bear Stakeholder Coordinator for the FWC.

Sandra Sheppard has had several raids on the fridge in her garage: fish, a beef roast, her son’s birthday cake, milk, orange juice. Then the burgling bear broke onto her pool deck and raided the wet bar for the harder stuff, guzzling 18 cans of Coors Light. “He was probably a bear with a sore head after that,” she cedes.

The FWC is holding meetings around the state to educate the public about co-existing peacefully with bears. Attendees get questionnaires asking if they are prepared to buy $200 bear-proof trash cans, bring in pet food at night, and string bird feeders at least 10 feet off the ground. Other questions: Should nuisance bears be euthanized if they are serial offenders? Should the state allow regulated hunting to manage bear populations? Or should they just be left alone?

The H-word has proved controversial, and passionate bear lovers have waded into the debate. Maybe instead of hunting or relocating bears, the state should consider removing “uncooperative humans,” one woman suggested at a meeting in Umatilla. Another came to a meeting in Longwood wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “I support the right to arm bears.”

At a meeting in DeLand this week, only one attendee expressed pro-hunting views—an older gentleman wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap. He declined to give his name afterward—“because I don’t want this lot giving me threats,” he explained with a grin, gesturing at others who had rolled their eyes at his sentiments.

His father-in-law was the last to kill a black bear in Tiger Bay—a wildlife wilderness located between DeLand and Daytona—in the 1960s, when hunting was legal. Open up hunting again, he argues, and the bear “problem” will be solved. “The bears are multiplying and multiplying. The only way you’re going to manage them is to shoot them. I haven’t heard enough at this meeting about bear management, I’ve just heard a lot about garbage management,” he complained.

Anger at the FWC’s handling of the attack on Susan Chalfant also has been rife. Officers trapped six bears, and euthanized two that fit the woman’s description of a solitary 200-pound adult bear. Later, DNA tests showed neither was the guilty party. The culprit was a “highly protective” mother bear out foraging with her three cubs.

“You guys are meant to be protecting our wildlife, not killing them off,” one woman told officers at the DeLand meeting. “Bears have rights, too.”

The FWC incident report notes that although Chalfant used “clacker” noise makers to alert any lurking bears to her presence as she left her house, she was walking in an area she knew to be “bear dense” after dusk (when the creatures are most active) accompanied by two dogs, which scientists say are known bear agitators. Someone in the area had also been leaving out food for the bears, a supplement to the garbage-can finds and acorns from oak trees around Chalfant’s home.

FWC biologist Mike Orlando understands the backlash. “Killing two innocent bears upset us, too. This incident kicked us into a very aggressive response, but it wasn’t a scorched-earth policy—those two bears matched the description and we had no way of knowing until further down the line that we’d get DNA that’d tell us which was the attacker,” he said. “We couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. This wasn’t a case of ‘Ooh, a bear just scratched me on the hand.’ This was a very serious incident.”

Lawyer Gary Kaleita and his wife, Cindy, moved to the subdivision because of its rural setting, where there are regular sightings of deer herds, wild turkey flocks, and soaring eagles, too.

“Up until that incident, it had just been accepted around here that you’re in a community with bears and the most ‘trouble’ you had was them getting into your trash cans,” Kaleita said. “It alerted people to the fact that a lot had become complacent about the possibility of a bear attack.”

He would like to see his neighborhood become the first 100 percent “bear smart” community in Florida. But even since the attack on Susan Chalfant, he still sees unsecured trash bags left out the night before collection, non bear-proof garbage cans, and garage doors wide open.

“We’re living in the bears’ habitat and it’s our fault if there are issues,” Kaleita says. “The people who care took steps. The people who don’t care just think it’s someone else’s problem.”