The Florida Black Bear: A Conservation Success Story

By: Kathy Barco, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
By: Kathy Barco, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Tallahassee, Florida - August 29, 2011 -

Kathy Barco, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

This is my first column as Chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). I am honored and, frankly, humbled by the support of my fellow commissioners, our stakeholders and the Floridians this Commission works with every day. I thought it appropriate to start my conversation with you by sharing our success story of the FWC’s threatened species rule for Florida black bears.

In the early 1970s, Florida black bears dropped to their lowest numbers on record; estimates were as few as 300 bears statewide. Our predecessor agency, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, stepped in and selected the Florida black bear as one of the first listed threatened species in 1974, adding more protection to bears and their habitat.

But adding bears to a list alone does not recover a species. The FWC and its partners identify important wildlife habitats and work with private landowners to keep those lands in conservation, whether through easements and agreements through our Landowner Assistance Program, or purchases through programs like Florida Forever. Statewide educational efforts teach thousands of people each year about bears and how to avoid conflicts. Formal education programs like The Florida Black Bear Curriculum Guide bring bear issues directly into the schools, and informal efforts occur through FWC staff time spent engaging the public at festivals and community events. The FWC passed a rule that made feeding bears illegal, allowing us to focus on the core cause of human-bear conflicts. All of those efforts have allowed us to bring the bear back to about 3,000 animals today.

In fall 2010, the FWC led a team of experts to review all the data available on Florida black bears to see if bears met the criteria to be considered at high risk of extinction. The team found that the bear no longer met those criteria, and five additional external species experts reviewed the report and agreed with the team’s recommendation to remove it from the threatened species list.

This June, I was proud to preside for the first time as Chairman of the Commission when FWC staff presented their recommendations on the bear and 60 other threatened species. As my colleague and former Chairman Rodney Barreto said, it was “a time to celebrate our success.” We have more bears in Florida now than we have had in the past seven decades, and the bear is well on its way to being removed from the threatened species list.

Our work to manage Florida’s black bear is a continuing process. A team of FWC staff has been working diligently with stakeholder groups to create a management plan for bears. We will be seeking public feedback on the plan this fall, and a revised plan is expected to be brought to the February 2012 Commission meeting. I look forward to reviewing the plan.

The bear’s success is an example of what our threatened species rule is designed to do: identify species that need our attention, act to conserve the species, and bring them back so that they will never be at risk of extinction again.

The FWC is known for seeking input from all points of view, and I hope my series of monthly columns provides the spark to begin or continue conversations concerning events and issues facing Florida conservationists.

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