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The Florida black bear, Ursus americanus floridanus, is a distinct subspecies of the American black bear and the only bear that lives in Florida.  These bears originally ranged throughout Florida, southern Georgia and southern Alabama.  Their distribution is now mainly restricted to several discontinuous managed core areas including land around Eglin Air Force Base; Apalachicola, Osceola and Ocala National Forests; St. Johns River watershed; and Big Cypress National Park.  Optimally, their habitat includes a mix of flatwoods, swamp, scrub oak ridges, bayheads and hammock habitats, where they can access dense cover.  Bears travel for food sources and to find home ranges.  An adult male’s home range is about 50-120 square miles in size.

Florida black bears have shiny black or brown coats, occasionally with a blond patch on their chest, and a brown snout.  The largest of Florida’s terrestrial mammals, they are 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) long from snout to tail, and measure 3 feet (1 m) high at the top of their front flank.  Males typically weigh 250-350 pounds (113-160 kg), females are smaller at 130-180 pounds (60-80 kg).  Females mature at age 3-4.  After mating in June-July, females give birth to litters of 1-4 tiny (12 oz; 340 g) and undeveloped cubs in January-February.  Females generally hole up in their den through the winter after cubs are born.  Cubs stay with mother for their first 18 months.  This means females usually breed only every other year.  While they can live up to 30 years, most Florida black bears live less than 20 years, and 25% of cubs don’t live past their first year.  The most common cause of death is vehicle collisions as bears cross highways. 

In the wild, Florida black bears are shy and secretive and rarely seen.  Primarily nocturnal, Florida black bears forage at night.  As omnivorous opportunists, they enjoy a diverse diet including nuts and fruit such as acorns, berries, saw palmetto and sabal palm fruits, grasses, insects, honey.  More rarely they eat meat from armadillos, deer, raccoons, and wild pigs.  In human inhabited areas bears will habituate to eating food from garbage cans.  As their habitat shrinks due to spread of human habitation, more human-bear encounters occur.  Although they don’t technically hibernate, in winter months, Florida bears go into a “wintering” period, during which they rarely eat or leave the den.

Florida black bears are important part of their ecosystem.  Considered an “indicator species,” their population size and health reflects the overall health of the ecosystem.  They also are classified as an “umbrella species.”  This means that they require a large and diverse habitat containing many species.  Protecting Florida black bear habitat thus protects the habitats for many other plants and animals included in their varied range.

When Spanish explorers arrived in Florida at the end of the 15th century it is thought that the Florida black bear population numbered 11,000 individuals.  By 1974, this number had dwindled to 300 individuals, primarily due to hunting and habitat loss to expanding urbanization, agriculture, and wild land recreational use.  At this time, the state of Florida listed the species as threatened.  Under this protection the population has rebounded to an estimated 1000-3000 bears, and its protected status was withdrawn in 2012.  For the first time in 21 years, the Florida Wildlife Commission approved a week-long bear hunting season in October 2015, despite public opposition.  The goal was to managing subpopulations by culling numbers.  After two days, the hunt was halted, as the quota of 300 individuals was reached well before expected. 

(Bray 2015; Collier County Government 2005; FWC 2015a,b; Maehr and Brady 1984; Natureserve 2015; USDA Forest Service 2009).

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© Dana Campbell

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