The Florida Black Bear

Our remaining Florida black bears, numbered at over 4,000, need thousands of acres of habitat to survive, which is one of the reasons the Florida Wildlife Federation continues to strongly support land protection in a state that is approaching 22 million residents. When we protect Florida’s natural habitat, we protect the Florida black bear and will continue to have bears and all the other wonderful animals that make Florida special.

Florida Black Bear

The Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is one of sixteen subspecies of the American black bear and is the only species of bear found in Florida. They use almost every type of habitat found in Florida, but flatwoods, swamps, scrub oak, and hammock are most optimal. With growing bear and human populations, coupled with an increase in development and habitat loss, human-bear encounters are becoming more common.

The Florida black bear is listed as a Recovered species; they are no longer considered a conservation concern. Both the human and black bear populations in Florida have been growing since the 1980s. They are, however, protected by the Bear Conservation Rule. This rule protects bears by stating it is illegal to “take, possess, injure, shoot, collect or sell black bears or their parts or to attempt to engage in such conduct except as authorized by Commission rule or by permit from the Commission”. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, which are found in the Common Law Defense of Necessity.

Historically, this species was found all over the midsection of the state, including some coastal areas, as well as the southern parts of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Their current range is now approximately 49% of their historic range. However, the population has been fragmented now into six larger and two smaller populations.

Today, the primary threats to the Florida black bear are habitat loss and fragmentation, and human-bear conflict, to include vehicle strikes when crossing roadways. The continued encroachment of human development into bear habitat has caused and continues to increase the likelihood of human-bear interactions. While they tend to avoid humans, their extreme food drive is attracted by things that we leave around our homes. Because of their amazing sense of smell, bears can get into trouble by accessing outdoor garbage cans, bird feeders, and other easy calories in human-dominated areas. Bears can become dependent on a food source and begin to become too comfortable around people, so it is important to keep food away from areas where bears can access it.

Bear cubs are born blind and covered with fine hair. At birth, they are the size of a stick of butter or a soda can, weighing 8 – 15 ounces. Litter sizes are anywhere from 1 to 5 cubs, with the average being two to three.

Bears have large bodies with a shiny black coat (although some may appear redder in color during certain times of the year) with a brownish muzzle. Some bears may have white patches or markings, called blazes, on their chests. Their ears are short and rounded on adults, but look more like “Mickey Mouse ears” on younger bears. The black bear has five toes with short, curved non-retractable claws that give them excellent tree-climbing ability. A bear’s superpower is their nose. They have an excellent sense of smell, being able to detect an odor from at least a mile away. Their eyesight is similar to those of humans, and they can see in color. Male black bears on average weigh between 250 – 450 lbs., and females typically weigh between 125 – 250 lbs.

Black bears are solitary animals; however, they can be found together when in a mother-cub family unit or as pairs during mating season. They will tolerate each other and forage in groups only if there is an abundance of food in one area. Black bears can run up to 35 miles per hour and can climb 100 feet up a tree in 30 seconds. They are also excellent swimmers. Bears are naturally wary and people and are typically active at dawn and dusk.

Florida black bears need large areas of land to travel and survive. An adult female has an average home range of up to 15 square miles while an adult male averages 60 square miles. Females have a smaller range because they are more cautious when moving with cubs. Bears communicate through vocalizations and body language.

To learn about black bear vocalizations and body language, here is a link the North American Bear Center’s webpage on various bear vocalizations and body language.

In the 1970s, the population of Florida black bears were reduced to only 300 – 500  throughout the state due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. In 1974, they were designated as Threatened by the state of Florida and were placed on the state’s Endangered and Threatened Species List. Through partnerships and strong conservation efforts, they were taken off the protected list in June 2012. They are considered a true conservation success story, as latest research estimated there to be over 4,000 adult bears statewide.

Black bears are solitary animals; however, they can be found together when in a mother-cub family unit or as pairs during mating season. They will tolerate each other and forage in groups if there is an abundance of food in one area. Black bears can run up to 35 miles per hour and can climb 100 feet up a tree in 30 seconds. They are also excellent swimmers. Bears are naturally wary and people and are typically active at dawn and dusk.

Florida black bears need large areas of land to travel and survive. An adult female has an average home range of up to 15 square miles while an adult male averages 60 square miles. Females have a smaller range because they are more cautious when moving with cubs. Bears communicate through vocalizations and body language.

If you encounter a bear, it may stand up on its hind legs. This is not an aggressive behavior; instead, the bear is trying to assess whether you are a threat by using their nose to air scent and eyesight to get a better view. Bears let us know through vocalizations and body language when they are uncomfortable. They may huff out air and clack their teeth, do jaw popping, or even bluff charge. These are all ways a bear lets us know that we are too close. Behaviorally, if a bear’s behavior changes because you are there, that is a sign that you are too close and you should slowly back away while speaking calmly.

To learn about black bear vocalizations and body language, here is a link to the North American Bear Center’s webpage on various bear vocalizations and body language.

Black bears prefer habitats with dense understories such as forested wetlands and uplands but will use a variety of habitats depending on the season. Habitats need to provide food, water, shelter and corridors to travel. Their ideal habitat would have plenty of trees and plants to provide a seasonal variety of nuts and fruits. The various oaks that are native to Florida all produce a different kind of acorn, which are one a bear’s favorite seasonal foods. Another favorite is the saw palmetto – bears will eat the heart and the berries, which are seasonal.

Females that are pregnant may den in areas dense with palmettos. They may also choose to den in day beds (which are similar to nests) in thick areas, under downed trees, or even in tree cavities. In these areas, she is able to better protect her cubs by removing them should she hear twigs or brush break nearby.

Florida Black Bear: Ursus americanus floridanus.

Mammal.

Bears are opportunistic omnivores (eat both plants and animals) since their diet is largely determined by whatever they find. However, approximately 80% of their diet comes from plants (acorns, saw palmetto, nuts, berries, and other vegetation). Another 15% of their diet comes from colonial insects (termites, ants, wasps, and bees, as examples). The remaining 5% of their diet is meat, typically things that are dead or play dead (armadillo, opossum). Their diet fluctuates seasonally based on plant productivity so if there is a failure of one food source, there are other sources available for them. Their weight also fluctuates throughout the year. Bears generally eat 5,000 calories a day, except in the fall months, when they eat close to 20,000 calories a day. This time of heavy eating is called “hyperphagia”, where they put on as much weight as possible to prepare for winter. Food availability tends to be lower during the Florida “winter months” so they go into hibernation, even in Florida. However, this hibernation is called “winter lethargy”, and they do not fall into a deep sleep. Instead, they may move more slowly and nap for longer periods of time. With at least some food available year-round, individuals may only slow down for a few weeks.

As of 2018, there have been 15 people injured by Florida black bears.

Mating season runs from June to early August, and cubs are born generally the last week of January/first week of February. Adult females reach maturity between three and four years old and typically have litters every other year. Bears have a reproductive mechanism called delayed implantation, so after breeding, the female must put on enough fat and weight during the fall months to support herself and cubs; otherwise, she will not have cubs that year.

Females pregnant with cubs will not begin to roam the area again until the cubs are old enough and big enough (6-8 lbs.) to move about with her. Bear cubs stay with their mothers until 15 – 17 months of age, at which point they go through “family break-up”. Mom will chase them away so they start lives on their own and she will go back into the breeding cycle. Lifespan expectancy depends on the age of the bear; however, under human care, they have been known to live into their 30s. The oldest male bear known about in Florida was 20 years old, and the oldest female was 22 years old. It is difficult to give average life spans because most bears are not documented and followed by biologists.

The Florida black bear is considered an “umbrella species”, meaning that by protecting them and their habitat, we are also helping many other species that also require that same habitat. Increased human population growth has contributed significantly to habitat loss and fragmentation.

The Florida black bear, with over 4,050 in the state, needs thousands of acres of habitat to survive, which is one of the reasons FWF continues to strongly support land protection in a state that is quickly approaching 22 million residents. If we protect the natural habitat, we will continue to have bears and all of the other wildlife that make Florida so special.

Images on this page were provided by Jeff Lindsay, FWC Bear Management Unit map, and Lori Lindsay.

Latest news about the Florida black bear

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How many Florida black bears are there in the state?

The latest research done by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in 2017 showed an estimate of 4,050 bears throughout the state.

What should you do if you encounter a Florida black bear?

With bears and humans being in closer proximity with development taking over more habitat, the chance of a human-bear encounter has increased. Should you encounter a bear at close range, the FWC suggests that you remain standing, back away slowly, and speak to the bear in a calm, assertive manner. Do not turn your back, or play dead. Do not run, as this can trigger the chase instinct in some animals, including bears. Do not make any sudden or abrupt movements. Avoid direct eye contact, as some may view this as a threat.

If a bear stands on its hind legs, this is not aggressive behavior. It is trying to see you better to assess whether you are a threat or not.

If a bear comes towards you, paws the ground, huffs or clacks their jaws, they are showing that they are uncomfortable and are trying to get you to give them space. Continue talking and backing away slowly with your arms raised to make yourself look bigger. In the unlikely event that a bear charges and makes contact with you, fight back!

If you are in your yard, make sure you are in a safe area and the bear has an escape route. Make noise or bang pots and pans to scare the bear away.

Remember that bears are wild animals and while they are generally shy want to avoid humans, they have the ability to seriously harm humans. Give them plenty of space; if their behavior changes because you are there, then you are too close.

How is the Florida Wildlife Federation helping the Florida black bear?

We believe that we must protect, restore and connect our remaining wildlife habitats as our state is so rapidly developing. We have been protecting Florida wilderness since 1936, securing and enhancing additional habitat. We concentrate on the sustainability of species such as the Florida black bear. Our efforts center on land protection and public education.

Are Florida black bears aggressive?

Although Florida’s black bears aren’t typically aggressive, they are large and strong, and can be reactive when provoked. Studies show that black bears will avoid confrontation 90% of the time. They generally give plenty of warning (jaw popping, clacking, bluff charge) before attacking. In most cases where a person has been injured by a bear, it is often a defensive behavior to protect cubs or food.

Help us protect the Florida black bear