The Florida Black Bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is a geographical subspecies of the American Black Bear. The common Black Bear ranges all the way from Alaska to Mexico, with populations in at least 40 states. It is the smallest of the three bear species found in North America, with males weighing around 325 pounds or so. The Florida subspecies, however, is even smaller, averaging about 250 pounds, and unlike the far-ranging common Black Bear, thefloridanus subspecies is found only in scattered portions of Florida and the southern parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, wherever it can find the large undeveloped tracts of forest and swampland that it needs. (The isolated population of bears in Louisiana is considered to be another separate subspecies.) Female Florida Black Bears require at least 10 square miles of territory; males, who range over the territories of several females, need at least 30-50 square miles.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Florida, the bears ranged all over the peninsula, and may have numbered as many as 11,000. As humans poured into the state and began turning wild areas into sugar plantations and orange groves, however, the bears were driven into ever-smaller pockets of habitat. By the mid-1970’s the population had dropped to just 3-400 statewide. Laws were passed in the 1980’s and 1990’s to protect the bears by setting aside habitat, ending hunting, and outlawing the traffic in bear parts (used in traditional medicines). By 2012, the population had grown to an estimated 3,000 individuals, and the Florida Black Bear was removed from the list of endangered species, though it is still protected from hunting and it remains illegal to possess or trade in bear parts.
Black bears are omnivores, who range throughout their territories eating virtually anything edible, from insect grubs to fruits and berries to fish to carrion. They are most often active at night. Although they are largely solitary, Florida’s bears are not territorial, and they will sometimes congregate peaceably at a rich food source. During the mating season in autumn, the males will wander to all the females who inhabit his territory. Most of the time, Florida bears do not need to hibernate through the winter, but pregnant females are an exception–they always hibernate for at least a few months, no matter what the weather. The reason for this is not known–it may be hormonal. The cubs are born in late January or early February, and are blind and helpless at birth, weighing less than a pound. At about two months old, they are ready to accompany their mother on foraging expeditions. They will stay with their mother for about a year and a half before wandering off on their own, reaching sexual maturity in another 2-3 years. Although Florida Black Bears are not aggressive animals and attacks on humans are very rare, mother bears are very protective of their cubs and will act to defend them. The primary threat to young cubs are male bears, who may kill and eat them. About half of all cubs do not live through their first year–most of these are killed by other bears.
In historical times, the biggest threats to the Florida Black Bear were hunting and the loss of habitat to development. Today, the lack of large suitable habitat areas still limits the bear’s population, but the leading cause of death is car collisions as they cross roads while moving around their territory. On average, two or three Black Bears are killed statewide every week by being hit by cars.
As the population has increased, moreover, the bears are coming into more and more contact with areas inhabited by humans. As a result, Florida wildlife officials have made increased efforts to educate human residents to avoid conflict, by not feeding the bears and making sure that trash and other food sources are securely bear-proof. When bears are reported as nuisances in inhabited areas, through raiding garbage cans for instance, wildlife officials will first try to prevent the bear’s access with the use of secure containers or, if necessary, electric fences. Bears that persist in entering human areas are tagged and relocated. If they then return, they may be euthanized.
Only five areas of Florida have large stable populations of Black Bears, all of them in protected areas: the Ocala, Apalachicola, and Osceola National Forests, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the unused portions of Eglin Air Force Base. However, as the population continues to recover, the bears have now spread into areas where they have not been seen for many decades.