For the first time in two decades, Florida officials have scheduled a bear hunting season. It's a response to a rise in bear attacks — but it has some environmentalists upset.
Experts say there's plenty of room for humans and black bears to co-exist, but the smell of food is pulling the animals out of the woods and into neighborhoods.
If you want to understand the situation, take a trip to Franklin County, in the pandhandle. A few months ago, a bear attacked a teenager there while she walked her dog near a convenience store.
Kaitlin Goode, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, explains that garbage — strewn through the woods and across the road at a recycling center for appliances — is part of the problem. She says bears can't help but drag tasty things back into the woods.
"These communities are backed right up to the forest, and it's just a bear pump," Goode says. The bears are flourishing in the woods, she says, "and they smell this. They might be in the middle of the woods, but they can smell this."
Bears are making a comeback in the panhandle — where it's mostly forest — and in the rest of Florida. In 2002 when the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, did its last population count, there were about 3,000 bears. Now they're counting again.
Thomas Eason, the state director of Habitat Species Coordination at the FWC, says he expects the population to have grown significantly because of increased bear sightings.
"As you get more bears, particularly with more people, you start having more and more negative interactions," he says. "And so, finding that balance point that we call cultural carrying capacity is important."
To reduce human-bear conflicts, FWC wants new feeding rules and more bear-proof trash cans. Hunting is part of the plan, too.
The state hunt isn't finalized and won't be until the fall, but environmentalists are still upset. Kate MacFall of the Humane Society of the United States, says there's no evidence a hunt will help.
"It's a recreational activity that a small percentage of the population wants to do," she says. "But in terms of decreasing human-bear conflicts, there is no science that supports that."
MacFall says if wildlife officials want to reduce bear attacks, they need to focus on getting people to stop feeding bears — whether through intentional feeding or letting the animals go through the trash.
If none of these solutions work, the bears could be moved.
Caster is a 20-year-old black bear who lives at the Tallahassee Museum. During the fall, the bear needs to consume more than 15,000 calories daily. Mike Jones, an animal curator at the museum, says that drive for food is what landed Caster there.
"He started going to everybody's houses and going in garages," he says. "So the Fish and Wildlife Service relocated him and moved him about 150 miles away into a big swamp area."
But Caster couldn't stay away from people so officials moved him to a zoo.
He's lucky. Last year, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials had to kill almost 50 bears that had started to associate humans with food.