Six major bear populations are restricted to
expansive, undeveloped forest tracts, mostly public lands including the
Apalachicola National Forest, Ocala National Forest/ Wekiva River Basin,
Osceola National Forest, St. Johns River area in northeast Florida,
Elgin Air Force Base in Floridaís panhandle and Big Cypress National
Preserve in southwest Florida. Two smaller populations occur; one north
of the city of Tampa in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge area
and one in forested private lands in Highlands and Glades counties in
The Florida black bear is the stateís largest native
land mammal. A distinguishing characteristic of bears is how they walk,
planting the soles of their feet on the ground heel to toe (this is
called a plantigrade motion) as compared to a cat or dog that walks on
their toes (called a digitigrade motion). Florida black bears are
normally black with a tan muzzle and may have a white chest marking
called a blaze.
The average weight of a Florida black bear is 350
pounds for males and 200 pounds for females. They are generally 4.5 to
6.5 feet long and approximately 3 feet tall when standing on all four
Male bears can live from 15 to 25 years, while females
can live up to 30 years. Most Florida black bears live less than 20
Florida black bears can be found in a variety of
habitats throughout Florida, including mixed hardwood hammocks, cabbage
palm forests, pine flatwoods, uplands such as sandhills and sand-pine
scrub and forested wetlands. Depending on the quality of habitat, a male
bear requires between 57 to 303 square kilometers for its home range,
while a female requires between 30 to 65 square kilometers. An optimal
habitat provides enough food, water, shelter and space to support a
healthy population of animals. Scientists estimate that ideally an area
as large as 500,000 to 1,000,000 acres may be necessary to support a
viable population of Florida black bears.
Bear are descendants of meat eating (carnivore) dog
relatives. However, the Florida black bear is not an herbivore (eats
only plants) or a carnivore (eats only meat), but an omnivore, meaning
they eat both plants and meat. Eighty percent of a bearís diet is
plant material including berries, acorns and other fruits. Favorite
plants include grasses, the seeds, hearts and tender shoots of the saw
palmetto, alligator flag, the seeds and hearts of sabal palm, nuts
(especially acorns) and a wide variety of berries such as tupelo, saw
palmetto, blueberry, gallberry and many others. Florida black bears also
eat insects (yellow jackets, bess bugs, ants, honeybees, walking sticks,
carpenter ants, termites). Less than six percent of their diet is meat
(armadillos, white-tailed deer), raccoon, wild pigs). Bears forage for
their food, meaning they meander through an area and feed on appropriate
food that it comes across.
Florida black bears do no truly hibernate. Instead,
from late December to late March they have a period called "winter
denning." During this time, pregnant females give birth in the den
and go without food. Males and non-pregnant females will sometimes leave
the den for a few weeks at a time.
Every two years during January or February, females
give birth to one to four cubs. Their dens may be high in a tree, in a
hallowed out stump or on a forest floor protected by plants. The cubs
are dependant on their motherís protection for nearly one and a half
years, during which she teaches them the lessons of survival.
The biggest long-term threat facing the Florida black
bear is habitat loss due to development and urbanization. Vehicle-caused
mortality is the number one direct cause of death for this species.
Habitat fragmentation also makes it difficult for bears to find mates
and limits their chances to move into more suitable habitat.
A Florida black bearís life can be divided into four
stages: cub, yearling, young adult and mature adult. Cubs are born
blind, helpless, and weigh about a half a pound. They will stay in the
den with their mother for three to four months. When they emerge in the
spring, they may eat some solid food but will continue to nurse until
they are nine to ten months old. Young cubs spend their first winter
denning with their mother and emerge the following spring as yearlings.
Approximately 25 percent of all black bear cubs do not survive their
first year. Natural causes of death include drowning, den cave-ins,
hypothermia due to den flooding, starvation, falling from trees,
infections from injuries and predation by older or male bears, bobcats,
coyotes and other natural predators.
Yearlings stay with their mother throughout the spring
until she is ready to mate in the summer. Yearlings are run off to fend
for themselves when they are 18 months old. They must now establish
their own home range. Most females establish a range near their motherís
but do not usually interact with her. Males, on the other hand, will
travel long distances to find unoccupied territory. Mortality rates for
yearlings are very high. Inexperience results in them being killed by
other bears, collisions with vehicles and starvation. About 23 percent
of all yearlings die before that are two years old.
About 46 percent of young adult males fo not survive
to adulthood. Many are killed by collisions with vehicles. Some starve
or are killed by other bears. Young females have a higher survival rate,
with only 20 percent dying before reaching adulthood. Mature adult bears
die of old age, collisions with vehicles, poaching, starvation, disease
and other factors.
WHY CARE ABOUT FLORIDAíS BEAR:
The Florida black bear is considered an
"indicator species" and an "umbrella species." An
indicator species is a species whose population size and health is used
to gauge the overall health of an ecosystem. An umbrella species is one
that utilizes large natural areas of habitat containing many different
kinds of plant and animal species. This means that protecting Florida
black bear habitat means protection for the many other plants and
animals (red-shouldered hawks, raccoons and wood storks, for example)
that use the same habitat.
Over the past 50 years, more than eight million acres
of forested land have been cleared in Florida. The primary factor
threatening the survival of the black bear in Florida is habitat loss
and degradation. The best way to save a species like the Florida black
bear is to restore, protect and connect large tracts of undisturbed
natural habitat (corridors) and to find ways to reduce human caused bear
deaths. Although Florida black bears fo not currently receive protection
under the Federal Endangered Species Act, they are protected as a
threatened species in the state of Florida (except in Apalachicola
National Forest, and Baker and Columbia counties).