Longtime Valparaiso resident Candy Hansard came to the City Commission meeting to voice her concerns about the safety of children and adults in the area. She says a male and female black bear now resides between her home on Mississippi Avenue and the Lewis School.
She’s exasperated with the Florida FWC. Hansard believes the state government agency, which enforces laws related to wildlife and moves potentially dangerous animals, has not done enough to keep people in the neighborhood and the bear safe. “Because once the bear hurts a person, the bear has to be killed. So, if the bear can be relocated, the bear can live,” said Hansard.
Hansard hoped that the commissioners would be able to raise more alarm bells about the situation as it stands and prod the FWC into action. “We need to do something for our schools; we’ve got an elementary school over there,” Hansard said, referring to the Okaloosa STEMM Academy, “we also have Lewis over there that needs to be protected. The parents need to know there are bears, so they’re not sending their children walking to school all by themselves.”
The Okaloosa County School District told us that their office of student safety works with issues involving animals on the campuses of district schools. Deputy Superintendent Steve Horton told Mid Bay News, “Our students remain supervised and we do not anticipate any additional action at this time, other than making sure we remain alert and that our dumpsters are as secure as they can be so as not to offer easy access,” said Deputy Superintendent Steven Horton.
Hansard told the Valparaiso Commission a representative from the FWC visited her neighborhood and claimed that the bears live in Valparaiso and she will have to accommodate them. “The bears are ruling the neighborhood and the humans are paying the property taxes,” Hansard said, “I’ve been living here 32 years, and the bears were not here 32 years ago.”
David Telesco, a Bear Management Program Coordinator with Florida FWC, says the organization has responded to this specific incident in Valparaiso by attempting to trap the bear. The mission failed to lure and trap the bear.
Telesco says the FWC spoke to locals about the bears’ behavior as well. “None of the behavior residents described to us showed a risk to public safety.”
He noted trapping bears and re-releasing them elsewhere works as negative reinforcement for the bear, “because relocation itself is rarely successful in keeping a bear from returning to its established home range. Bears in this area range across 135 square miles over the course of a year, and so their presence in any one area can be consistent and then they will not be seen for months.”
As Hansard said to the commission, the only alternative the FWC has to moving bears is to kill them. FWC says they try to avoid this option at all costs. Still, it has to put down between 20 to 40 bears every year for various reasons. That’s between .5% and 1% of the total Florida bear population yearly.
There are a couple of factors which keep bear calls from Valparaiso flowing into the FWC hotline, Telesco notes. “There is really good habitat right up to the neighborhood.” He says bears, even ones in a neighborhood, rarely become a threat to humans. “Bears’ presence in the neighborhood is not necessarily a risk,” Telesco said, “They move through. It’s a risk when they set up shop.” Telesco said that securing trash inside of garages and sheds where bears can’t get to it can save lives.
The commissioners on the dais agreed with the concerns Hansard and her neighbor Joe Cobb brought to the commission. Commissioners Kay Hamilton and Brent Smith recounted their own family members close calls with bears and said that, essentially, they had their hands tied by the FWC. Police Chief Joe Hart agreed. “You’re absolutely right, Chief Hart said to the commissioners about their powerlessness relative to the FWC, “The bear population in this state has absolutely blossomed. Eglin joined the state management program that brought the black bear. Years ago, we had a small population. [the program] has done so well that [the population] has mushroomed. And [the Valparaiso Police Department] do as much as we possibly can within the confines the FWC gives us,” said Hart.
While Eglin does have a permit from FWC to move bears, Telesco says no bears have been imported from other parts of Florida. Instead, the permit allows the base to move a bear from the ‘habited’ portions of the base to an uninhabited portion of the base.”
Mayor Brent Smith told the crowd, the commission and the neighbors who showed up to the commission to talk bears that they could point the finger at one major change in the area – how Eglin’s range has been reutilized. “I really think whenever we started building solar panel sites and clearing out properties by burning that, we drove them into our habitat,” Smith told the audience.
As we approach the winter months, the bears in the Northwest Florida area have begun to prepare for colder weather. This means they will spend almost 18 hours per day looking to eat up to 20,000 calories.
With a heightened level of activity, it’s important to know what you can and can’t do to keep bears away from your home in Florida.
Wheel them to the curb the morning of trash day and keep them in a place like your garage or a shed. That way they are harder for bears to access. This will cause them to keep moving and not set up camp in your backyard. “It is much easier for bears to get those calories from knocking over a few garbage cans or tipping bird feeder than foraging in the woods,” said FWC’s Telesco, “A bear would have to eat 5,000 individual acorns in order to get 20,000 calories.”
While it might be nice to see the odd hummingbird or cardinal as we head into autumn – it would probably be nicer to not see a bear at your back door. Take down the bird feeder for the time being. This will remove the temptation for bears to come to your home and inspect your birdseed.
FWC actively encourages you to scare bears away. Bears are actually pretty skittish creatures – and they hate loud noise. So, make like your kids off-key garage band and screech, holler, yell and generally make a ruckus. The bears will – for the most part – hightail it out of there. Make sure that the bear has a way to escape before you do this.
The FWC website also recommends the use of bear spray to deter bears. The spray can be used at a distance of 20-30 feet and is highly effective.
Say it with me – you can’t shoot a bear unless it is to protect human life. The penalty for shooting a bear is up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine or a loss of recreational (think hunting and fishing) licenses for up to three years.