By:  Mike Bowen
Few wildlife encounters are as thrilling, or stir the human imagination as much as a spontaneous viewing of a majestic Florida black bear. Bears have been fabled and referenced in songs, cartoons, mythology, Native American culture, and campfire legends for generations. The Florida black bear is the single largest Florida mammal, and is considered an umbrella species, thus, what is good for the Florida black bear, is thought by experts to be good for other smaller wildlife sharing its habitat.

The Florida black bear, Ursus Americanus Floridus, is a subspecies of the American black bear, Ursus Americanus. While American black bears, though sparse in number, broadly inhabit much of the United States, the Florida black bear is the dominant species in Florida, with no significant population outside of the state. Another subspecies of the American black bear is the Ursus Americanus Luteolus, or the Louisiana black bear, primarily dominant only in its home state. 

The American black bear and its subspecies are all similar in appearance. The Florida black bear is slightly smaller than the Ursus Americanus, with an adult male, or bull, weighing as much as 650 pounds, but averaging less than 400 pounds, and an adult female, or sow, weighing as much as 450 pounds, but averaging a more typical 250-300 pounds. Both bull and sow adults grow to 5 feet or more in length, and stand approximately 6-8 feet tall when erect on their hind legs, though they typically walk flat-footedly, with a shuffle-gait, on all fours. The Florida black bear is also faster than you might think, able to run up to 30 M.P.H. for a short distance. Healthy Florida black bears have full shiny black coats, a distinct brown muzzle, and an occasional white chest diamond pattern, or “blaze”.  

All four paws of the black bear are equipped with five retractable claws that can grow to a length of 2-1/2 - 3 inches. The primary use of those powerful claws is to dig and to forage for food. The black bear also has amazing dexterity, able to delicately peel a single berry. Though one slash from a powerful front paw could disembowel a full-grown whitetail deer, confrontation with other large mammals, including humans, is quite unlikely. 

The Florida bear is omnivorous, meaning that its diet consists of both vegetation and small vertebrate animals. For the foraging bear, a typical day’s worth of food intake is always dictated by area availability, but will likely consist of 11-18 pounds of nuts, berries, tender vegetation, plant succulents, shoots, honey, honeybees, and other colonial insects. It may also include carrin, chipmunks, fish, armadillo and other small vertebrates. 

Yes, like its storybook cousin, Winnie the Pooh, the Florida black bear does enjoy honey. But, unlike Pooh, the black bear also enjoys the protein it ingests by eating the actual honeybees, despite being stung hundreds of times while raiding a hive. During springtime, when hives are overflowing with new nectar, it is not at all uncommon to see a black bear with its face completely distorted by swelling as a result of multiple bee stings. Occasionally, stings to a bears face can cause its eyes to swell closed, hampering its vision, and rendering it particularly vulnerable to conflict with an unseen moving vehicle.

The Florida black bear, by its nature, is predominantly nocturnal, elusive and, (except when mating), reclusive, and does not seek human encounter. There has never been a recorded human death in Florida caused by a Florida black bear. In fact, since the beginning of the twentieth century, there have not even been any recorded incidents of serious human injury. Myths about the ferocious mother bear protecting her cubs are just that, myths. A mother bear is actually more likely to flee a human encounter and leave her cubs behind, than to stand and defend them. (That said, a wise person would avoid a mother bear and her young, and not test this statement). Such an encounter would almost certainly lead to the eventual death of the young cubs, totally dependant on their mother for care. Please, never go near an occupied bear den space, and always give a denning mother a wide berth to protect her cubs. 

Four-wheeling is a very popular pastime in Florida’s forests. If you encounter an adult bear in a cabbage palm thicket, or other potential denning area, turn your vehicle around and carefully exit the area so that you do not accidentally run over an occupied den space. Most cabbage palm dens are little more than flattened areas below eye level and you probably would not see it until you were on top of it. It would be best to avoid the potential den areas entirely during denning seasons.

The reproductive cycle of the Florida black bear varies statewide by region, and by prevailing weather conditions. Adult bears are typically able to reproduce at between four to five years maturity. The female, or sow, comes in season approximately every two years, and a litter can include up to four cubs, though inbreeding and diminishing habitat has reduced the typical average to two cubs per litter. Females are typically impregnated between April and June, but their embryos do not begin to develop until denning occurs. Typical gestation periods are from 200 – 220 days. An impregnated female must feed sufficiently prior to denning for winter or risk non-development of their embryos. Acceptable dens might include dense forest, flattened dry swamp, oak or palm hammock, or even a tree or cave. In the Ocala National Forest, the preferred denning area seems to be a flattened patch of extremely dense and remote cabbage palm thicket.

Largely because of warm weather patterns around the Ocala National Forest, Florida black bears do not always hibernate, though some still do. Instead, bears in the Ocala National Forest seem to favor a condition generally referred to as “wintering”, meaning, the bear rests, but does not go into a full hibernation. When a pregnant female begins to den, they do not typically range more than a few feet away from the den space, and may not feed for periods between 60 – 90 days, or until the cubs are born. 

Cubs are generally born between December and February. They are born blind, with the markings they will carry throughout life, and they weigh between twelve ounces and one pound, or about the size of an 8-week-old German Shepard puppy. Pairs of twins are typical, and cubs rely entirely on their mother for care and feeding. The male parent does not participate in the raising of the cubs, and there is often no father/cub bond of any kind. Cubs typically wean between July and September of their birth year and spend the next winter at their mother’s side, learning to forage, and generally becoming independent of their mother on or before their second winter, almost always at the mother’s urging. When a healthy cub separates from its mother, it will stand about three feet tall at the shoulders and weigh between 100 and 150 pounds, and would be referred to as a yearling, or adolescent bear. For reasons not currently known, a “Demodic” bear may be slightly smaller. (See below – Demodicosis)

Florida’s black bear population was thought to exceed 12000 – 15000 just a few decades ago. Today’s number is thought to be less than 2000, statewide. Much of the decline in population is attributed to decline in habitat.  Other contributing factors include smaller litters due to inbreeding, a direct result of the narrowing of habitat, and the inability to seek out unrelated breeding partners. Such inbreeding is thought to be responsible for smaller litter sizes, lessened cub survival rates, and even certain immune systems disorders. 

Demodicosis is thought to be a possible complication of immunosuppression disorder. Demodicosis is a mange-like illness that is currently affecting populations of the Florida black bear predominantly in the Western parts of the Ocala National Forest. Hair loss in large patches is the most common symptom of Demodicosis, and is believed to be the result of a mite infestation that is not contagious to humans or domestic animals. Bears afflicted with Demodicosis, are often referred to as “Demodic” bears.

The largest broad cause of mortality in the black bear population is its encounters with humans. Though hunting of the black bear is no longer legal anywhere in Florida, dead bears are often found with paws, and/or heads removed as trophies by unscrupulous individuals or profiteers. Some seek to harvest black bear gall bladders and paws for Asian markets where they are prized as delicacies and used in medical treatments. Still others are poisoned, or shot and injured by beekeepers, ranchers, or uninformed homeowners, and often wander into the forest and die a slow and agonizing death. 

By far, the single largest cause of black bear deaths is encounters with automobiles, which accounts for more than fifty killed each year. Many of these injured animals could be saved with prompt and proper medical attention, which is not currently a viable option.

Another very preventable cause of death is also taking a toll on the population. Human feeding is extremely detrimental to a wild bear. Essentially, a well-meaning act of perceived kindness dooms the animal and signs its death warrant. Bears are quickly habituated, a condition that is virtually irreversible and potentially deadly to the bear, as well as local homeowners and their domestic pets. Additionally, thousands of dollars in property damage to doors, windows and parked vehicles occur annually as a result of habituation. 

Well intentioned lovers of wildlife who feed bears at or near their own residence or near the residence of others, will almost always bring about the eventuality of the bear having to be removed and destroyed. State-appointed wildlife officers are not in the practice of attempting to reintroduce habituated bears into new surroundings. With relocation erased as an option, destruction of the animal is imminent. 

It is illegal to intentionally feed a Florida black bear, (FWC Rule 68A-4.001), punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. We should all do our part to take reasonable steps to ensure that a bear cannot access our garbage cans, pet food containers, bird feeders and beehives. Making sure that bears do not become habituated is the only way to assure that a wild bear can remain in the wild.

Finally, studies have indicated that a healthy bear population in Florida will require at least 400,000 acres of undisturbed habitat, which would need to be comprised of dense forests with dense under-story vegetation, excellent regenerative water resources, high concentrations of cabbage palm, and a combination of pine and oak hammock with traversing impenetrable swamps. Research has shown that a single adult male will roam an area of approximately 66 square miles. Unfortunately for the Florida black bear, its habitat gives way to between 500 and 1000 new human residents to the state each day, resulting in a loss of approximately 20 acres per hour to new development.

Controlled developmental expansion, moratoriums on the sale of national forest lands, landowner education programs, wildlife fences along forest highways, wildlife underpasses below busy thoroughfares, warning signs, imposed speed limits, stiffer fines and penalties for poaching; all of these things will help ensure survival of the black bear. Lawmakers can help by working to pass comprehensive legislation that protects all of Florida’s most precious resources. 

Preserving the Florida Black bear is a first step to preserving all of the indigenous wildlife of the Ocala National Forest, and all of Florida.

Peoples Alliance for Wildlife Survival, Inc.
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