Bear prevention begins with YOU

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
If a bear wearing a ranger hat helps remind people that only they can prevent forest fires, will it take a real bear showing up on their yards for them to learn about properly disposing of their garbage?

The summer is typically marked by a spike in black bear activity and sightings, but this season in particular gives people like Kristal Walsh, 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron natural resources manager, reason to redouble their efforts at alerting the base populace.

At this time last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported nearly 50 separate bear sightings and incidents in Northwest Florida.

As of May 20, there have been more than 120 cases.

What accounts for this nearly threefold change? A rising trend in makeshift honey laboratories in people's garages? Declining employment opportunities in the woods due to a "bear market?"

Actually, no, the increase stems not from such preposterous phenomena, but a simple, preventable occurrence: people not putting their trash in proper receptacles.

"Bears are a threatened species in Florida," Ms. Walsh said. "We're living in their habitat and have to take extra precautions to contain our garbage because that is the primary reason they come out of their area into our area."

The seemingly innocent, yet unwittingly harmful actions of just one household can have lasting effects for the entire neighborhood as well as the bear population at large, making them dependent on more trash as a viable food source.

"The adult bears teach their cubs to go into housing, and the young ones ultimately learn from their parents to the point that they're becoming used to coming in and eating food out of the garbage," Ms. Walsh said.

According to the FFWCC, nearly 80 percent of a bear's diet consists of plant matter like berries and nuts, with meat and insects rounding out their regimen.

Yet when introduced to a human presence and activities, their propensity to find new food, like garbage and leftovers, greatly increases. For example, a single large pizza contains the same caloric value as more than 4,500 acorns.

"When they get into the garbage, they find food that is easier for them to fill up on and supplements their diet with calories multiple times what they can gather in days," Ms. Walsh said. "They can consume in an hour what would normally take months."

Piled-up trash bags are not the only attractors for hungry bears. Low hanging bird feeders, excess food left in pet dishes and unclean barbecue pits are easily detectable to scavengers. A general rule recommended by the FFWCC is that whatever will attract a small animal like a raccoon or squirrel will also attract a bear. In fact, a black bear's sense of smell is seven times keener than that of a bloodhound, according to the American Bear Association's Web site.

Faced with a rise in bear incidents, Hurlburt Field's wing leadership took many precautions to alert residents in the past years. The front page of the base Web site includes a "Be bear aware" section that contains tips and recommended courses of action for individuals involved in a close encounter. Both the 1st SOCES and the FFWCC have held community seminars with the intention of educating the community about what to do if they see a bear.

But messages and accessible phone numbers can only go so far to prevent animal nuisances; the greater responsibility lies on the actions of the individual and it doesn't end immediately after they've set their garbage outside.

"The number one way we can discourage bears from coming into the housing areas for food is simply locking and latching your garbage cans and properly disposing of trash," Ms. Walsh said. "If one household does that, they make it tougher for bears to have that access. They may go to the next house to get food, but if everybody locks and latches their garbage cans, that's the key."

At her desk at the 1st SOCES, Ms. Walsh decorated her space with a bumper sticker that read, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." While she joked that the phrase comments on the rising price of college, its meaning also applies to a part of Ms. Walsh's message to the community.

"It's all starts with education," she said. "If residents take care of their own garbage on an individual basis, we all take the necessary steps to keep the bears within their own habitat."

If you or anyone you know should come into contact with a bear, immediately call security forces at 884-7777 or the environmental flight at 884-4651.