Black Bear Research
The Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) historically occurred throughout the state but experienced a severe reduction in abundance prior to the mid-20th century due to loss of habitat, persecution, and unregulated hunting. Bear range was fragmented before the 1970s, when the first detailed bear range maps were created. The FWC classified the black bear as a Threatened Species from 1974 through 2012, when the species was considered recovered. The FWC’s Bear Research Program conducts essential research statewide to support the agency’s Bear Management Program, guided by the most recent Florida Black Bear Management Plan. Biologists have studied many aspects of black bear ecology, but the majority of projects fit into four main categories: abundance, range, demographics, and habitat.
The FWC estimates the abundance (number) of bears in each subpopulation about every 10 years. To do this, biologists deploy an array of hair corrals that collect tufts of hair when bears come to investigate scent lure and bait. Samples of bear hair contain genetic material that is analyzed to identify individual bears. Statistical analyses of the location and timing of when samples were collected reveal the abundance and density of bears in each study area. Comparisons to past research allow biologists to measure trends in population size. Knowing the size of bear subpopulations is fundamental to science-based bear management.
The current estimate of bear range in Florida is comprised of seven distinct subpopulations each located in its own Bear Management Unit (BMU). Some of these subpopulations are small and impacted by habitat fragmentation whereas others are large and well-connected. Bear range in the state has expanded over the last 20 years. Biologists map and quantify bear range with objective modeling methods, using sightings from the public in addition to data collected from bear research and management. Range maps are used for many bear conservation objectives, including monitoring trends in species distribution, connectivity/degree of isolation, and as a tool for public outreach and education.
Biologists study demographic variables of adults and cubs in Florida, including adult female survival, cub survival, and fecundity (reproductive output) to estimate subpopulation growth or decline. Biologists collect detailed data by tracking female bears and their offspring for several years. The resulting estimate of subpopulation growth allows researchers to predict bear abundance in the future, which is used to plan Bear Management needs and actions. Biologists have estimated growth rate with this approach for Osceola, Ocala, and Apalachicola subpopulations in northern Florida. Next, they will estimate growth rate for the Big Cypress subpopulation in southern Florida.
Although individual black bears travel widely, populations need forested areas with dense cover and plenty of fruits, vegetation, acorns/nuts, and other seasonal foods. Lack of sufficient natural habitat can limit their range. Where natural habitat is fragmented, bears may encounter more people, roads, and unnatural (human-sourced) foods as they travel among remaining patches, which can increase their risk of mortality. Fragmented habitats can also limit how young bears, typically young males, disperse to new areas. Dispersal events are important for maintaining and improving genetic connectivity between bear subpopulations. FWC has studied bear habitat availability, bear movements, and bear diet to better understand the needs of Florida bears and to predict and reduce human-bear conflict.