Bears aren’t likely the first critter to come to mind when one thinks about the Sunshine State.
Likely most folks think of the American alligator—completely understandable, given that great reptile’s essentially statewide range and singular bearing. Then there’s the West Indian manatee, the most all-around charming of Florida’s native animals, not to mention bottlenose dolphins, roseate spoonbills, even the odd wild flamingo cruising the Everglades coast (and showing up in plastic form on lawns all over the state).
But in certain parts of the state, visitors might be wondering (and might be a little nervous) about:
Are there bears in Florida? How common are bear attacks in Florida?
As it happens, though, bears are very much part of Florida’s ecological fabric: from the Panhandle all the way down to the tropical fringe of the Greater Everglades. There’s only one kind of bear in Florida: the American black bear, which here (and in adjoining states) exists as a unique subspecies.
While a plenty formidable animal, black bears are, as a rule, shy and elusive around humans. There have only been 15 confirmed bear attacks on humans in Florida since 1976.
When human foods are easily available—and especially when wild foods are limited, whether because of natural cycles or habitat loss—black bears are certainly gung-ho about seeking them out, which occasionally results in close encounters and, very unusually, attacks on people.
Bear-human encounters are more likely to come out badly for the bear, already facing significant anthropogenic mortality along Florida’s busy roadways. Therefore it’s up to Sunshine State visitors and residents alike to enjoy the landscape in a bear-aware fashion: to protect themselves, sure, but also to ensure the survival of this biggest native land mammal.
Florida lies well outside of the historical distribution of the North American grizzly (or brown) bear, but has long supported that beast’s smaller, more forest-adapted relative: the black bear.
(For you prehistory buffs: Until about 11,000 years ago, around the close of the Pleistocene, the Florida Peninsula also sheltered an additional species: the Florida spectacled or short-faced bear, an extinct cousin of South America’s Andean or spectacled bear.)
Florida Black Bear Population & Distribution
In the centuries following Euro-American settlement, the population of black bears in Florida fell dramatically, and became part of a far Southeastern stock of bears cut off from other eastern black bears.
Strong conservation efforts have, fortunately, helped bolster bear numbers in Florida:
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) estimates a bit more than 4,000 black bears inhabit the state. That said, this population occupies a bit less than half the original bear country of Florida.
The FWC splits into seven Bear Management Units (BMUs): the West Panhandle, East Panhandle, North, Central, South-central, and South BMUs. Of these, the largest bear populations are found in the Central (1,200) and East Panhandle (1,060) units.
Black bears are generally most numerous and broadly distributed in the northern and central parts of Florida, with an important South Florida redoubt in the Big Cypress of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.
Along with some sparsely roamed lands along the Georgia border, black bears are least abundant east and southeast of Lake Okeechobee in the Treasure Coast and Gold Coast areas, and in the Everglades proper, though they historically ranged down into the Upper Florida Keys.
Florida Black Bear Biology & Natural History
Black bears are Florida’s heftiest land native mammal.
Adult females, or sows, tend to range between about 130 and 180 pounds; the FWC reports the heaviest Florida sow as weighing 460 pounds.
Adult males, or boars, are significantly larger than females (a case of sexual dimorphism), and commonly weigh between 200 and 400 pounds, with exceptional specimens tipping the scales at close to 800 pounds.
Such hulking male bears well outsize the next-biggest native terrestrial mammals in the state, white-tailed deer and Florida panthers, though the non-native feral hog may rival a bear in bulk.
Florida black bears inhabit a wide range of habitats in this wonderfully ecologically diverse state, from forested swamps, shrub wetlands, and hammocks to pine scrub and savannas.
In the Ocala National Forest—a great stronghold for the species—black bears preferred pine scrub, flatwoods, and swamp for denning habitat. Black bears in the Okefenokee Swamp favor as core habitat bayheads and gum-bay-cypress forests, though they also forage in pine stands.
Black bears are ace omnivores, feeding on everything from plant matter and invertebrates to live meat. They’re predominantly herbivorous and insectivorous, though.
In Florida, the hearts and fruits of saw palmetto are an important part of bear diet in many areas, as are tree mast such as acorns and hickory nuts as well as berries. Insects such as carpenter ants are also mainstay foods.
Black bears are opportunistic predators, and will certainly snatch an armadillo, deer fawn, or piglet—heck, even a young gator—if the chance presents itself, but in Florida such prey appears to be more supplemental fare.
The unpicky feeding habits of the Florida black bear help it withstand natural fluctuations in preferred food sources. For example, a study at Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida showed black bears gorging heavily on saw-palmetto fruits in the fall, but during a year when the palmetto crop was poor, they switched over to acorns.
When, say, hard or soft mast production is poor—or, as is often the case, when habitat loss greatly restricts the foods and feeding areas available to black bears—bears may be forced to forage in human-dominated or utilized landscapes. Here they may feast on everything from corn left out by hunters to pet food and suburban garbage.
Considering the number of bears and the (vastly, vastly) greater number of people calling Florida home, it’s surprising there have been so few serious incidents of bear/human encounters.
The FWC tallies only 15 bear attacks resulting in human injury since 1976.
As Florida’s human population continues to grow, and urban sprawl continues to advance into wildlands and semi-wildlands, the occasional iffy run-in between people and bears is just about inevitable.
Two attacks were recorded in January 2022.
A woman walking her dog in DeBary north of Orlando at about 9 PM was chased and knocked down by a black bear on January 13th. The bear, a sow in the company of three yearling cubs, had apparently confronted a man and a woman shortly beforehand, and been scared off before encountering the dog-walking woman.
She was clawed and bitten, but not seriously, and her dog was unharmed; officials soon located the offending bear in a tree with her cubs and euthanized her. (The three yearlings were deemed old enough to fend for themselves.)
On the evening of January 20, meanwhile, a man in Daytona Beach received minor injuries when he fended off a black bear attacking his dogs.
Surveillance footage captured by a neighbor showed an adult bear with two cubs, so it’s possible this attack was a defensive one by the mother.
Indeed, dogs are a factor in quite a few bear/human incidents in Florida, as elsewhere. Black bears may perceive dogs as threats, or—especially in the case of small breeds—even prey. Keeping dogs under control and under supervision is one way to avoid drawing the unwelcome attention—not least the defensive wrath—of a black bear.
Another major way to cut down on bear encounters is to keep food and garbage properly secured.
Pet kibble left out in yards, unsecured trash bins, and certainly any food left out for raccoons, deer, and other wildlife—a commonplace practice in Florida, unfortunately—can definitely draw in black bears, increasing the risk of sudden encounters with people or dogs. Furthermore, it may potentially train bears to directly associate people and development with easy eats, perhaps making them more habituated and aggressive.
The FWC encourages communities to adopt BearWise practices to minimize such issues, which—proving the tried-and-true “a fed bear is a dead bear” maxim—often result in bears needing to be euthanized.
The FWC considers most bear attacks on humans in the state to be cases of animals defending themselves, their cubs, or a food source against a perceived threat. The most serious—although thankfully incredibly rare—black-bear attacks in North America seem to be predatory in nature. According to the FWC, however, such an incident has not been logged in Florida.
If you’re visiting Florida on vacation, you’re extremely unlikely to have any problems with black bears. Keep food and garbage secure at a vacation rental.
If you’re hiking and run into a black bear, don’t run; back up or sidestep away slowly while talking in a firm, steady voice. Almost always, an encountered bear is going to run away or move off on its own.
If a black bear does approach you, hold your ground while waving your arms and continue to talk or shout; throw rocks, sticks, or other objects if the bear persists in advancing. In the low-probability event that a Florida black bear attacks you, fight back with whatever’s available—don’t play dead.
Count yourself lucky if you spot a Florida black bear out in the palmetto thickets or dashing across a forest road. These are highly intelligent, immensely charismatic native creatures that deserve our admiration and respect, not fear.
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Hope this helps!