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Florida's Imperiled Bears

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Black Bear Facts
Black Bear in tree

RANGE:

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 Florida’s 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 central Florida.

DESCRIPTION:

The Florida black bear is the state’s 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.

SIZE:

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 feet.

LIFE SPAN:

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 years.

HABITAT:

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.

FOOD:

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 bear’s 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.

BEHAVIOR:

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.

OFFSPRING:

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 mother’s protection for nearly one and a half years, during which she teaches them the lessons of survival.

THREATS:

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.

LIFECYCLE:

A Florida black bear’s 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 mother’s 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 FLORIDA’S 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.

PROTECTION:

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).