North Florida Bears
The popular culture media image is of a cute and amusing denizen of the forest. Attractive personalities and traits are assigned which endear them to the public.
These imaginative characters have been an indispensable component of newspapers for more than a century and Walt Disney brought them to life in the movies at the dawn of talkies.
Television, and now the inter-net, perpetuates the affable perceptions of these feral creatures. With the advent of computer generated graphics, these animated beast are capable of acting right alongside well-known actors.
Bears are a common subject for the inventive mind of animators. They have all the features capable of making them lovable, sympathetic clods.
What is not to love with a big furry animal with a pleasant and occasionally mischievous personality? Whether it is a desire for picnic baskets or honey pots, the bears of fiction exude an irresistible charm.
Reality is quite different. The black bears which inhabit Gulf County and the surrounding region are Ursus americanus floridanus, a subspecies of the indigenous American Black Bear.
They are the largest terrestrial native mammal. Despite the name, their fur color may range from jet black to a honey brown and coats can include a white chest patch.
These bears are at home in the forested lands of north Florida. Whether oak hammocks or cypress swamps, bears are ready to settle in for a stay.
As an apex or top of the food chain predator, local black bears will eat meat. They will take larger species, but are much more likely to take smaller, easier to sudue animals.
Their protein needs are sometimes satisfied by consuming insect larvae. The bear’s claws, thick fur and strength make nests an easy and satisfying target.
The region’s beekeepers have a long running battle with bears in their attempts to keep these social insects producing honey and pollinating crops. Winnie the Pooh notwithstanding, bears favor the honeybee larvae to the honey itself.
In addition to meat and insect larvae, the local black bear population consumes plant and vegetative materials. Acorns, nuts and grains are especially popular and are usually found in concentrations large enough to interest the bears.
Deer hunters who use corn in feeders are likely to attract hungry bears looking for an easy meal. Many feeders have been tipped over and ripped apart as the bears gorge themselves on the corn.
The bear’s excellent sense of smell is attributed to the structure of its nose. Much like dogs and hogs, the number and placing of sensory receptors provides the animals with the ability to find food miles away.
While the local black bears tend to be shy and avoid contact with humans, the hunt for nourishment can create unintended meetings. Food waste left in the open can attract, and retain, bears to an area.
Once the bears are in an area, they will search for additional food sources. This has the potential of placing anything which smells interesting at risk, including pets and people.
It is prudent to handle and dispose of food waste properly with the possibility of a bear contact. An adult bear will weigh as much as or more than a person, and must eat regularly, too.
To learn more about north Florida’s bears, contact Les Harrison, the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director, is part of the Extension team serving Gulf County.