June 23, 2023
In recent days, U.S. residents have been reminded that Florida is indeed a cool place. After all, where else can you spend a day at the beach and see a bear cub floundering out of the Emerald Coast surf as you and the family look on?
That happened earlier in June 2023 when a black bear cub swam ashore in the Gulf of Mexico near Destin, producing videos that went viral in a handful of hours as beachgoers saw something other than the usual mix of sunscreen, lightning whelks and one of the world’s most popular beaches thanks to its mix of white sand, sunny skies and turquoise blue water.
The previous month, in late May, Fort Myers TV news channel WINK had its own viral video as a pair of black bears broke through the screen enclosure around a Naples, Fla. area home, wanting nothing more than a cool dip in the swimming pool as the homeowners looked on in amusement and wondering if a bear breaking and entering was covered by their homeowner’s policy.
A few days prior to the beach bear, a young black bear was spotted hanging out in a tree at Lake Eola Park in Orlando, after being documented in the area for three straight days, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Why the Recent Increase in Black Bear Sightings?
So, why have there been so many public reports on black bear sightings lately, you may ask? Well, short answer, it's that time of year. Spring and summer mark a special milestone in the lives of young black bears where they begin a transition known as "dispersing". Juvenile bears around two years of age, give or take a few months, begin the process of leaving the comfort of their mother's dens and venture into unknown territories to find a place to settle down. During this time, black bears may be seen in unexpected locations as they travel across a wide range of areas in search of a new home—and like this little guy, going through the usual growing pains of living and learning all on your own. To be expected.
How Unusual is a Bear on the Beach?
While the video of Destin's "beach bear" went viral worldwide, with news coverage reaching as far as India, a bear taking a dip is normal behavior. In fact, they are pretty adept swimmers according to FWC, as noted in a statement they made after the sighting. While water-treading bears are commonplace, a salty swim in the surf is rare, but not unheard of. FWC officials report, "It actually isn’t unusual to hear of black bears swimming in the Gulf, on their way to barrier islands in search of food."
Seems this one went a little too far in the wrong direction, though, being corralled in from offshore by a local fishing captain, Frank Merrell. "He looked really tired and scared when he got out of the ocean," said Jeremy Cameron, one of the onlookers.
Another witness, Jennifer Majors Smith, reported, "I first saw the bear when I went to make lunch for my family. We are right on the beach and our window faces the Gulf. I saw a black spot in the water and a boat driving up to it," she explained. "At first, no one on shore could tell what it was in the ocean. A man was yelling out 'Bear! Bear!' You would expect 'shark' or 'dolphin,' but not 'bear'. It came out of the Gulf and looked a little tired, but relieved. He shook his head and body to get the water off of him and kept running. He looked like a big goofy puppy at first." She continues, "We were all shocked and amazed to see what we saw. We all enjoy a dip in the water, but who knows how long he was in there. I have been an avid beachgoer since I was a teenager and this was a first for me." She was so moved by the experience, she and a friend even made a catchy little jingle about it titled, "Bear Floatin," which you can find on her Instagram page here.
Apparently not too deterred by a crowd, what was assumed to be the same cub, the bear was spotted the following day a mere stone's throw from the original sighting location. Chris Barron, an out-of-town visitor from Mississippi, shared, "The next day, the condo next to us saw the bear on the tennis court. It then climbed the fence onto Hwy-98. That’s the last update we had."
How Common Are Florida Black Bears?
It might surprise some outsiders to know that there are black bears in Florida, but they are there and in pretty fair numbers as wild bruins roam in a number of locations around the state. In fact, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there were approximately 4,050 black bears—the only kind of bruin species found in the Sunshine State—at last count.
For the most part, Florida black bears are smaller than their cousins in the Smoky Mountains, out West in the Rockies and up north in Canada. In Florida, FWC biologists indicate that adult black bears typically tip the scales around 250 to 350 pounds, although one adult male specimen weighed in at a huge 760 pounds. Adult female bears in Florida are smaller, typically weighing between 130 and 180 pounds, although one robust sow once tipped the scale to 460 pounds.
Author, Lynn Burkhead, and his wife encountered one of those larger bears last summer as they stayed at a rental property near Destin on a weekend vacation. One morning, the property owner was there and he motioned over to show Lynn a video his security cameras had recorded the night before. Around midnight, and only a mile or two from the Gulf of Mexico, a big bruin suddenly appeared on the screen, walked past his parked vehicle only inches away and disappeared into the night. As it turns out, that plump bear was a social media celebrity in that Panhandle town, occasionally walking down the neighborhood streets in broad daylight.
And that’s where the potential problems arise with Florida’s cool black bear population as they are increasingly squeezed by development and human activity, and at times, put in close proximity to Floridians and vacationers. And in those situations, like people touring Yellowstone National Park each summer, some will ignore the biologists and experts and try to get a video, a selfie, or both during their encounter with the relatively rare Sunshine State bear.
Are Black Bears Dangerous?
The danger, of course, is that bears aren’t cute cartoon characters, they are instead wild animals that usually aren’t dangerous, but on occasion can be. In fact, they can even be deadly as news reports out of Arizona this past weekend indicated.
Those reports told the tragic tale of 66-year-old Tucson, Ariz. resident Steven Jackson being mauled to death in an unprovoked attack by a black bear as the Arizonan drank his morning coffee while camping on a Prescott-area property he owned.
According to a Facebook statement by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office over the weekend, YCSO dispatch reportedly received multiple 911 calls about a man being mauled by a bear in the Groom Creek Area of Arizona. When YCSO deputies and Prescott Police Department officers arrived on the remote scene, they found Jackson dead and the attacking bear dead as well. Game wardens with the Arizona Game and Fish were then summoned to the location.
"From multiple witness accounts and preliminary investigation of the scene, Mr. Jackson had been sitting having coffee at a table on his property where he was building a home," said the post. "It appears that a male black bear attacked Mr. Jackson, taking him unaware, and dragged him approximately 75 feet down an embankment.”
Neighbors reacted quickly as Jackson screamed, but despite their attempts to scare the bear off, only a neighbor retrieving a hunting rifle and shooting and killing the bear finally ended the attack. By that time, Jackson had succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the attack, becoming the first fatal black bear attack victim in the U.S. in nearly two years.
Biologists and bear behavior experts stress that black bear attacks are rare, but they can and do occur. And as the Arizona fatality last weekend showed, black bear attacks can be deadly with at least five other fatal black bear attacks having occurred across North America since the start of 2020.
Bear attacks do occasionally occur in Florida too, although there has never been a fatal bear attack reported, at least as far as I could find. Fatal shark attacks are rare in Florida as well, and fatal black bear attacks are non-existent to date.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, as the Arizona case above suggests. FWC officials maintain an online list of documented incidents of physical contact between a person and a black bear in the state (minus a vehicle collision), a list reportedly kept since the mid-1970s and one that shows while rare, bears and humans do get into a potential danger zone from time to time across the Sunshine State.
There were eight reported bear/human physical contact incidents last year in Florida according to FWC, the most such encounters on their online list that dates back to 2006. The last such bear/human physical contact incident last year (and so far, the last one in the state since no such encounters had been reported in 2023 as of this writing) took place in Seminole County when a resident and their dog had a physical encounter on Sept. 10, 2022.
As mentioned, bear/human contact incidents aren't common in Florida, averaging a small handful per year. There were no bear/human contact incidents in 2021; only two in 2020; two in 2019; three in 2018; two in 2017; one in 2016; three in 2015; three in 2014; and one in 2013.
If you're doing the math at home, that's 25 such bear/human physical contact incidents in the past decade for an average of 2.5 such incidents in Florida per year. It's worth noting here that 19 of those cases involved a person and a dog and 16 of those encounters involved an adult female bear with young according to FWC.
Encounters also happened most frequently in the northeastern part of the state with Seminole County leading the way with the most such reported incidents at six encounters from 2013 to 2022. Several encounters happened in the northwestern part of the state over the past three years with Okaloosa County having three. Over in the northeastern part of Florida again, Marion and Volusia counties had three cases each in that same time period.
Bear Safety: What to Do (& Not to Do) If You Encounter a Black Bear
What should you do if you actually encounter a bear? If sighted from afar, be sure to make a report with FWC using their easy online black bear reporting system and snap a quick picture, if it's safe. In such a case, the Tallahassee-based natural resource agency suggests enjoying the experience since it's rare and exciting, but not to move towards the bear. If your presence causes the bear's behavior to change, you're too close. If you see a bear threatening the safety of human beings, pets, livestock or causing property damage, contact your local agency immediately.
What about if you encounter a bear at close range as those playing in the surf did a few days ago in Destin? FWC says to:
- Remain standing upright
- Speak to the bear in a calm but assertive voice
- Back up slowly to a secure area while leaving the bear a clear escape path
- Avoid direct eye contact since bears and other wild animals could view that as aggressive behavior
- Stop and hold your ground if your movement away seems to irritate instead of calming the bear.
FWC also says that in such close-range human/bear encounters:
- Do not make any sudden or abrupt movements
- Do not run since that may trigger a bear's chase instinct (and keep in mind that bears can run up to 35 mph!)
- Do not play dead since black bears eat things that are dead or play dead
- Do not climb a tree since black bears can climb upwards of 100 feet into a tree in only 30 seconds
- Do not approach or surprise a bear, especially one that may be injured.
A final note from FWC is that if a black bear attacks you in Florida (or elsewhere, for that matter), fight back aggressively. The agency notes that people have successfully fended off black bear attacks by using rocks, sticks or even their bare hands.
Floridians and those visiting the Sunshine State might want to memorize FWC's suggestions, since in all likelihood, the number of bear/human encounters in Florida may potentially increase as civilization builds and encroaches on the places where these mysteriously wild creatures live.
Black Bear Hunting Season in Florida?
According to the FWC, Florida’s black bear population has come back from just several hundred bears in the 1970s to over 4,000 today. The FWC characterizes it as one of Florida’s most successful conservation efforts.
Regulated bear hunting in Florida began in the 1930s and continued until 1993. The FWC re-opened bear hunting in 2015, but the season has been closed since that time.
In December 2019, FWC Commissioners approved an updated Florida Black Bear Management Plan, which guides how Florida should manage bears over the next 10 years. Plan objectives are statewide and at the Bear Management Units (BMU) level, which are seven geographically distinct areas where bear subpopulations occur in Florida.
The 2019 plan reviews population management options, including regulated hunting, which was determined to be an important option that could be considered in the future.
“Florida Sportsman Magazine supports a re-opening of black bear hunting,” said Jeff Weakley, Florida Sportsman Editor in Chief. “It’s a traditional game species here in Florida, as in many states around the country. Many people enjoy the meat and find creative uses for hides. Populations are sustainable with carefully designed seasons and limits. Leading up to the 2015 hunt, FWC biologists had made comprehensive surveys of the animal all over the state, and the Commissioners’ decision to open hunting on a limited basis was based on sound science and supported by a lot of hunters and sportsman’s groups. Unfortunately, there was resistance from the general public, which turned it into a political issue. I think it would be good to see hunters again have the opportunity to harvest a black bear in Florida.”
“The 2015 hunt was approved with a quota of 320 bears,” Weakley continued, “Officials monitoring the hunts closed the season on the second day due to high levels of success by the hunters who’d drawn permits. The rate of success, of course, came as little surprise to hunters familiar with locally dense black bear populations (particularly in the eastern Panhandle). Nevertheless, an atmosphere of alarm entered the discussion and played into the hands of anti-hunters.”
Georgia and South Carolina are among nearby states offering limited entry bear hunts.
The current issue of Game & Fish Magazine features excellent coverage of black bear hunting, including a particularly thoughtful column by Editorial Director Adam Hegenstaller.
Florida Black Bear Habitat Concerns
Every day, we see evidence of that in Florida where after years of being in the Census' Bureau's fast-growth Top-10 list, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported earlier this year that in 2022, the Sunshine State topped the national list. With some 1,100 people reportedly arriving daily last year, Florida’s population swelled to 22.24 million people, a growth of 1.9% from the previous year.
Obviously, Florida’s major metropolitan areas make up much of that increasing growth, and in many cases, plenty of Old Florida remains wildly in place. That means that black bears, at home for eons in the state’s peninsula and panhandle landscapes, should continue to live, reproduce, and thrive to the delight of the lucky few that look up, including sometimes during a day at the beach, and see a rare and wild sight that most will never be privileged to have.
There’s no doubt that Florida and its black bears are cool, but demand plenty of reverence—wherever they wander, wherever they roam.