Trash program could close lid on hungry bears

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The chairman of the state's game commission signed an agreement with a trash and recycling firm Wednesday aimed at reducing human-bear conflicts in Northwest Florida.

But unless local governments agree to match money state lawmakers made available this year, costs of reducing such conflicts could fall on residents and business owners who want to use more bear-resistant trash containers.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski and a Northwest Florida franchisee for the firm Waste Pro USA signed a "memorandum of understanding," which officials said is intended to make it easier and quicker for people to acquire bear-resistant containers.

Yablonski said the agreement will help make it known that the containers are available to Waste Pro customers.

"We need to do a better job in Florida, of securing our trash with bear-resistant cans and dumpsters and making easy food hard-to-get food. If we do that, the bears won't be as tempted to get into our neighborhoods," Yablonski said. "The Waste Pro partnership that we have today is hopefully something we can replicate around the state."

The announcement came nearly two months after the commission voted against holding a bear hunt this year. A 2015 hunt was highly controversial, but supporters have argued that hunting is one way to manage bear populations and to reduce potentially dangerous bear-human interactions. The two-day hunt, the first in the state in two decades, resulted in 304 bears being killed.

Bear-resistant containers cost more than standard trash and recycling bins. A traditional 95-gallon container may sell for around $60, while a more-durable similarly sized container with a bear-resistant lid is marketed around $200.

To reduce the cost of bear-resistant containers to Floridians, the agency secured $825,000 this year from the Legislature. But most of the money requires local governments within areas high in human-bear conflicts to match the state funds and to approve ordinances regarding the maintenance of residential and business trash.

Yablonski said the agreement with Waste Pro hopefully will spur counties and municipal governments to meet the state funding criteria.

"In the (state) budget there is proviso language ... that says priority funding goes to those who pass the ordinance," Yablonski said.

So far, only Seminole and Lake counties have approved the "BearWise" ordinances.

The trash containers are just one step being undertaken to reduce human-bear conflicts, said Thomas Eason, director of the commission's habitat and species conservation division.

"No one thing is going to solve it, but multiple individual things are necessary to come together," Eason said.

Most are non-lethal, such as relocating bears that are found encroaching on human residential areas and educating people living near bear habitats to not leave food outdoors and to keep trash indoors until garbage collection days.

State lawmakers in 2015 also increased penalties for people charged a fourth time with feeding bears not in captivity. The charge upped what had been first-degree misdemeanor offense of illegally feeding wildlife to a third-degree felony.

The state agency estimates there are 4,350 adult bears in Florida.

The state's bear population has made tremendous strides since the 1970s, when there were 300 to 500 black bears in Florida and the animals were placed on the state's list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.

As the population grew, so too did calls to the agency about bears, from 99 in 2000 to 6,094 last year. However, the 2015 number marked a drop from 6,688 calls in 2014.

The number of bears killed each year by vehicles has steadily increased. There were 243 bears killed by vehicles last year, up from 241 a year earlier. In 1990, the state recorded 33 bears killed by vehicles. In 2000, the number was 109.


Information taken from The News Service of Florida.