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FLORIDA BLACK BEAR (Ursus americanus floridanus)

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Family: Ursidae

Order: Carnivora

Status: Threatened

The Florida black bear is the largest land mammal in Florida (since the bison was extirpated). It is somewhat larger than its northern relative, with an adult length of about 1.5 meters. Adult females weigh about 91 kg, compared to about 136 kg for adult males, but are otherwise similar in appearance. Young black bears weigh only about 454 g at birth. Their fur is uniformly black in color, except for a brown muzzle and occasionally a blonde chest patch. However, bears in southern Florida are often brown in appearance, which may be a physiological response to the region's subtropical climate. No other mammal in Florida (except humans) creates footprints comparable in size and dimensions to those of the black bear. Their sight is poor and hearing is moderate; yet, their sense of smell is good.

Black bears use a wide variety of forested types, pine flatwoods, hardwood swamp, cypress swamp, hammocks, xeric oak scrub, and mixed hardwood-pine. As with black bears in other parts of their range, seasonal changes in habitat use occur in response to food availability. Historically, Florida black bears occurred throughout the Florida mainland and on some coastal islands, often associated with large forested tracts. Currently, the black bear remains widespread in Florida, but its distribution is reduced and has become fragmented. Publicly owned lands supporting black bears in southwest Florida include Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Collier-Seminole State Park, and Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The black bear also occurs in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Because of its secretive habits and primary occurrence in remote, forested areas, the population size of the black bear in Florida is difficult to estimate. Nevertheless, estimates have been between 1000 and 1500.

Black bears are typically territorial and solitary, except during the breeding season. Female bears with cubs, as well as sick or injured bears, may exhibit aggressive behavior; however, retreat is normally the bear's method of dealing with a threatening situation. Florida bears do not hibernate, but may sleep intermittently through the cool winter months. When active, adult bears are basically nocturnal.

The black bear is omnivorous in its selection of food, feeding on a variety of plants and animals. Major food items, which comprise of 80 percent of the diet, are the fruits and hearts of saw palmetto and cabbage palm, oaks, blueberry, blackberry, and gallberry. Insects are the most important animal food, with the introduced honey bee (Apis mellifera) occuring most frequently. Other important insects include yellow jackets (Vespula spp.), carpenter ants (Campanotus abdominalis floridanus), bessie bugs (Odontotaenius disjunctus), and walking sticks (Anisomorpha buprestoides). Vertebrates are taken infrequently and include armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), wild hog (Sus scrofa), and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). For some plants requiring acid scarification of seeds, the black bear may act as an important agent of dispersal and germination. Several species of internal parasites have been identified within black bears. Yet, no serious pathogenic cases have been observed.

Adult home range sizes are approximately 25 square kilometers for females and 150 square kilometers per males. Family groups consist of a mother and cubs. Cover, especially for the mother's denning requirements is an essential habitat component. Beds usually are located in remote swamps or thickets. Nests often occur in a nearly impenetrable tangle of vines and stems characterized by rusty lyonia, staggerbush, saw palmetto, gallberry and smilax. Bears also may use hollow trees for denning. Black bears become sexually mature at 2 or 3 years of age, and females generally produce two or three cubs every two years. Mating appears to occur in June or July of alternate years. Black bears are promiscuous, and females are induced ovulators. Implantation is delayed 5 or 6 months after copulation, and fetal development is completed in 6 to 8 weeks. The cubs are born in January or February. Nutrition of the female plays a critical role in determining the age of first reproduction, litter size, and interbirth interval. The family breaks up when the cubs are 16 or 17 months old. Females rarely disperse from their natal home range, whereas males disperse when 2 to 4 years old. Black bears may live 30 years or more.

Major mortality factors are associated with man and include poaching and vehicle collisions. Mortality rates are typically several times greater for males than females. The greater vulnerability of males is attributed in part to their more extensive movements, which expose them to more danger. In Florida, there is a preponderance of males in roadkills and hunting mortalities. Natural population regulation results from subadult dispersal and adult males killing younger bears.

Prior to 1950, bears were unprotected. In 1950, bears were afforded the status of a game animal with a legal hunting season running concurrently with the deer season. In 1971, the statewide hunting season was closed except in Baker and Columbia counties and on several wildlife management areas.

The Florida black bear was listed as a "threatened" species in 1974, except in Baker and Columbia counties and Apalachicola National Forest, where it was classified as a game animal. Recently, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission voted to end all bear hunting in Florida after the 1993-94 hunting season.

Cattle ranchers and beekeepers have historically considered the black bear a threat to their economic endeavors; consequently, the shooting or poisoning of black bears has been commonplace, and has probably contributed significantly to the decline of this mammal in Florida. However, the bear's decline in abundance can be most directly attributed to the disappearance of "wilderness" habitat. In recent years, expanding urbanization, agricultural development, and increasing use of the state's wildlands for recreation all have resulted in an accelerating rate of habitat loss.

The continued fragmentation of remaining bear habitat and the local extinctions which will likely follow are an important threat to black bear existence in Florida.

The Florida black bear and Florida panther have been sighted and radio tracked east of S.R. 951 in Collier County where there are tracts of forested land. There should be a need to address protection of this species when rezoning, designing new roads or road improvements east of S.R. 951.

Black bears are under legal protection throughout Florida. To prevent them from becoming economically destructive to beekeepers and ranchers, nuisance black bears are relocated by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to areas where they should pose no threat.

Bear crossing signs at identified highway crossings are being erected to reduce roadkill mortality. Other methods that should be considered in new highway construction projects through inhabited bear range include fencing and wildlife underpasses that permit safe passage. Educate ways that drivers can reduce the chances of hitting an animal.

Large-scale winter burning may reduce the diversity of foods available to bears by causing spread of saw palmetto and reduction in blueberry and runner oak (Quercus pumilla). Summer burning may encourage the latter species and should be considered in managing areas occupied by bears.

Long-term conservation of the Florida black bear is dependent upon preservation and wise management of large contiguous woodlands. Large tracts in public ownership that currently

support bear populations are recognized as important population centers. The continued survival of bears outside of public lands is questionable because of the speed with which southwest Florida is being developed. A detailed plan to preserve specific areas from development and to guide public land acquisition is needed.

Continued efforts are needed to develop outright purchases, wildlife easements, the encouragement of wildlife uses on these lands (e.g., hunting leases, commercial ventures, preserves), and other economic incentives to keep large areas undeveloped could combine to stabilize habitat losses in southern Florida. Further work should be made towards public awareness of the conservation measures available to assure the survival of the black bear in Florida. Finally, efforts should continue to aggressively prosecute cases involving illegal killings of bears and to educate the public.

Maehr, D.S. 1992. Florida Black Bear. Pp. 265-275. In Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida.

Volume I. Mammals. (S.R. Humphrey ed.) University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Content updated Date March 4, 2005