JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Bear sightings have been on the increase in the First Coast region, and experts say there's an explanation.
"We've de-listed them. [Bears are] no longer a state threatened species, they're considered common," Wildlife Biologist Sarah Barrett of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission told First Coast News on Thursday.
Barrett, who was visiting Jacksonville Zoo, said conservation efforts have pushed Florida's bear population - numbering only about 300 in the 1970s - to more than 4000 today. She says that statistic, coupled with an ever-burgeoning human population, is the primary reason more human-bear encounters are inevitable.
To find another reason, she says, look no further than the calendar.
"What we're seeing right now is females are emerging from their den with their offspring, so they have ten-pound or so cubs in tow right now, and they're teaching them how to thrive in the wild," said Barrett. "We've also got the start of breeding season next month, so we're going to have pretty much every other adult bear wandering around, trying to find places to find a mate," Barrett said.
While Barrett spoke, a demonstration was happening just feet away, where the Zoo's black bear, Betsy, was trying to break in to a special trash barrel designed to thwart bears, thereby discouraging them from entering human residential areas.
The experts on hand explained that, for a trash barrel to be certified bear-resistant, a prototype is sent to a specialized facility in Montana where it has to withstand break-in efforts by two 'professional' bears. If the bears can't solve the device within an hour, it makes the grade.
Barrett pointed to the importance of the bear-resistant containers because, as she said, bears are "smart enough to be lazy," i.e. opportunistic about satisfying their 5000-calorie-per-day requirements.
"They have the best sense of smell of any land mammal and will venture over a mile away, to get to that odor that they think is actually going to give them a food reward."
Which begins the explanation of exactly how humans risk harm to themselves, their families, homes, pets, and to the bears as well.
"Once an animal gets comfortable in your neighborhood and knows they have free food, knows they have accommodations, it's harder to move them on," the Zoo's Deputy Director of Animal Care and Conservation, Dan Maloney, explained.
The experts urge everyone to check with their local municipality and/or waste service provider, to find out whether the specialty trash barrels are available.
"We as an agency have helped subsidize some of those," Barrett said, crediting funding from the state's "Conserve Wildlife" license plate program.
"We've been able to use that in local governments to help cost-share some of the cost of bear-resistant trash cans."
But they're not equally available in all areas. Barrett says bear-resistant trash containers typically cost $150-$250, whereas comparable sizes of non-resistant cans cost about $50-$75. If you plan to buy a specialty model, she cautions to be sure of purchasing the right type for your area.
"One thing to keep in mind is to make sure that your waste service provider will service it because it does require someone to actually unlatch the can if it's one model. Other models they can open through the trash truck itself," Barrett said.
For those deterred by the potential self-imposed expenditure, Maloney says it amounts to the proverbial 'ounce of prevention'.
"Think of it more as an investment because, in this case, not only are you helping these bears, but you're helping yourself, your home, your pets," he said.
For the record, Betsy was no match for the garbage can.