There now are an estimated 4,350 bears in Florida with dramatic increases in some areas of the state, wildlife officials said Thursday. That number, included in a new state bear census, led the officials to describe the population as abundant, robust and growing.
That Florida black bear census reflects the state’s population before last fall’s controversial first bear hunt in a generation. The bear population estimates will change with numbers from the hunt, said Thomas Eason, habitat and species conservation director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
There is no decision yet — not even discussion — on whether there will be another black bear hunt next fall, he said. Those discussions will take place, he said.
“The statewide total bears compared to where we were in the early 2000s is up 60 percent. The new number for the statewide total is 4,350 bears,” Eason said.
In 2002, a census found just over 2,700 bears statewide, and in the 1970s those numbers were as low as 300 to 500, he said.
“The good news is bears are abundant in Florida, and they’re one of our greatest success stories from a conservation perspective here in Florida,” Eason said.
The census estimate is for adult bears, and does not include cubs, Eason said. The adult bears are producing about 2,000 cubs per year.
The bear census used “hair snare” traps, which would lure bears in and snag fur on barbed wire. Wildlife officials checked DNA on the snagged fur to identify bears, and estimate populations from there.
Florida has five bear management areas. The survey found the Central Florida unit has the most, with 1,230 bears, a 19 percent increase from the last time the state conducted a bear census, in the early 2000s. The new survey found 14o bears in the West Panhandle area, a 75 percent increase; 1, o80, in the East Panhandle area, an 89 percent increase; 620 in North Florida, a 138 percent increase; and 1,150 in South Florida, a 64 percent increase. The wildlife commission estimated there also are 130 bears outside the state’s bear management areas.
Eason repeatedly avoided talking about the prospects of another bear hunt, or about alleged concerns with last year’s hunt, which he called a “relatively small piece” of the state’s bear management programs.
Other fatal bear encounters — most notably collisions with motor vehicles — have not slowed Florida’s bear population growth, he said.
“What these estimates are telling us is reproduction and survival have outpaced any of those mortality sources, and our bear populations are growing rapidly for a carnivore of this size,” he said.