Last week I went searching for evidence of Florida black bears down along our coast. They are shy creatures, generally night-dwelling. I always watch for them, though, and as the poet Mary Oliver says “…everywhere I look on the scratchy hillsides, shadows seem to grow shoulders.”
I walked in places I know they forage and walk. I found acorns they hadn’t yet eaten on the side of the road.
I saw scat they had left in the middle of the High Bluff Coastal Trail. After all our winter rains, the bear poop was sinking into sand, leaving behind undigested acorns and plant matter the animals had eaten last month.
I even visited the dumpster behind the Big Top supermarket in Eastpoint where the trouble began.
It used to be rare to see wild black bears in North Florida. You could ride along Highway 319 from the Ochlockonee River bridge to the FSU Marine Lab and maybe one year, maybe 20 years after you started hoping and watching, you’d spot something larger than a dog, with longer legs than you could believe. It would lope across the highway in front of your car and you would turn to your companions and try to find words to describe the thrilling bear-ness of the animal, like no bear you’d ever seen sleeping at the Tallahassee Junior Museum. Most of all you’d notice its long athletic legs, so clearly built for pacing the many square miles of its huge home range.
I walked in those coastal places last week in memory of the four bears that have been killed in Eastpoint since Christmas, and the two cubs relocated to Osceola National Forest after their mother was euthanized. I mourned bears yet to be killed. I sorrowed for my former colleagues at FWC who went to school to learn how to manage and protect wildlife, but instead must trap and euthanize bear after bear after bear. And I grieved for the young girl who had unknowingly walked between one of those now dead bears and the uncovered dumpster that it had come to rely on for easy calories. She suffered facial injuries in the encounter but is recovered now.
Neither the bears, nor the girl, nor the wildlife biologists are at fault in this sad story. I’ll tell you who is. Blame lies squarely with the owners of the dumpsters and garbage cans and dog bowls who refused to secure their aromatic trash, food, and game carcasses. A lot of resources have been spent to educate people in Florida bear country about how to minimize bear-people conflicts, but some people refuse to comply. And bears will always lose in those cases: a bear habituated to human food and garbage will eventually be a dead bear.
More Food For Thought: A succinct publication called In a Bear’s Quest for Calories explains why WE–not the bears–are the problem. The wild bear must eat 20,000 calories a day to prepare for denning through the cold months. Forest foods like acorns and saw palmetto aren’t nearly as calorically dense as, say, dog chow. A bear would have to eat 11,165 acorns to ingest the same number of calories as she could find in a 25 pound bag of dog chow left on someone’s back porch!