State Eyes Increased Assistance Calls on Wildlife

TALLAHASSEE — Bears and coyotes and raccoons, oh my!

As Florida’s population expands, state wildlife officials have seen a more than 33 percent increase in calls for assistance related to wild animals during the past five years, according to a presentation that could go before the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week.

While no proposed changes are recommended to the agency’s Wildlife Assistance Program, the discussion comes as legislation awaits action by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would bolster self-defense arguments for people who kill bears on their property.

The presentation — tentatively on the agenda as the commission prepares to meet Wednesday and Thursday at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach — outlines how Florida’s growing human population is coinciding with an increase in people interacting with wildlife.

While calls include sightings and interactions involving animals such as bobcats, foxes, bats, raptors and snakes, Lisa Thompson, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, estimated in an email that about 33 percent involve bears. Another 16 percent are because of coyotes and 7 percent involve raccoons.

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And while calls are received statewide, most are from the northeast and southwest regions of Florida, Thompson said. The number of calls grew from 10,575 during the 2018-2019 fiscal year to 14,184 during the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

Most involve such things as wildlife in populated areas, getting into trash or causing property damage, not imminent public-safety threats.

“In most cases, unless there is an imminent safety concern, agency response does not include removing or relocating wildlife,” according to the presentation developed by Greg Kaufmann, the commission’s Wildlife Assistance Program administrator. “Messaging that incorporates current human-dimensions research and the best available science is an integral part of the program’s long-term approach to addressing human-wildlife conflict issues.”

The Wildlife Assistance Program, with an annual cost of about $630,000, was established in 2013, two years before Florida’s most-recent sanctioned bear hunt.

Meanwhile, requests have increased during the past year for the commission to approve another hunt, particularly due to human-bear conflicts in rural areas of Northwest Florida. Bear hunts have long been controversial.

Asked if the agency is feeling pressure from people seeking a bear hunt to make changes to prevent conflicts outlined in the presentation, Thompson said the commission continues “to focus on education and outreach as the primary ways in which to help prevent and mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.”

“As requests for assistance with conflicts with wildlife change or increase, staff will address to ensure we are responding appropriately,” Thompson added.

Lawmakers this year passed a bill (HB 87) that, in part, says people would not be subject to penalties for killing bears if they “reasonably believed that his or her action was necessary to avoid an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to himself or herself or to another, an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to a pet or substantial damage to a dwelling.”

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People who shoot bears would be required to notify the agency within 24 hours and show they did not intentionally place themselves or pets in situations where they needed to kill bears. Also, people would not be allowed to possess or sell bear carcasses after the killings.

Supporters of the measure pointed to increased incidents of bears venturing into residential communities in Northwest Florida, with some advocating for a sanctioned bear hunt.

Rep. Jason Shoaf, a Port St. Joe Republican who sponsored the legislation, said during a Franklin County legislative delegation meeting in September that “this bear problem is out of control.”

“We’re inundated,” Shoaf said at the time. “We’ve got way too many. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to have these problems.”

Critics of the bill contend the change will result in increased deaths of once-threatened bears. They say the state should expand the BearWise program, which includes education and the promotion of containers to secure trash that could lure hungry wildlife.

But the program requires people to take steps to reduce lures to wildlife.

“We do have bear-proof garbage cans,” Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee said when the House approved the bill in March. “And you know what, oftentimes, after the garbage is picked up, the tops are not secured again. So, the bears come back and come back and come back.”

Tant supported the measure, pointing to an increase in bears threatening farmers’ livestock in her North Florida district.

The proposed fiscal year 2024-2025 budget includes $683,500 to provide bear-resistant trash containers to Franklin County, which is south of Tallahassee. The budget and the bill about shooting bears have not been formally sent to DeSantis.

The state had about 4,050 bears, according to a 2017 estimate by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the most recent available data.

The numbers had fallen to between 300 to 500 in the 1970s, but the species was able to rebound while listed by the state as threatened. That designation was lifted in 2012 when a new management plan was approved.

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