Bear's visits to DeLand neighborhood prompts Volusia woman to seek ways to safely coexist

Experts say securing garbage, pet food, bird seed and other attractants is extremely effective in lessening bear visits to residential areas

Katie Kustura
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

When a black bear began dining al fresco in a neighborhood in southeast DeLand, residents knew it had to stop.

But how do you tell a bear it's no longer welcome to visit when that place it wants to stop for a bite is a garbage can?

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Victoria Commons resident Raquel Levy recently learned how to do that and more after reaching out to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Levy, a personal injury lawyer with a passion for helping animals, also reached out to Katrina Shadix, founder of the nonprofit Bear Warriors United.

"I did not want this bear to be euthanized," Levy said during a phone interview.

And it wouldn't need to be.

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In mid-August Shadix provided Levy and her neighbors with bags containing whistles and specially made cords that help prevent bears from opening residential garbage cans, as well as pamphlets with information about bears.

Raquel Levy demonstrates the use of straps with buckles that help prevent bears from opening residential garbage cans. After receiving a supply of them in August from nonprofit founder Katrina Shadix, Levy says she hasn't seen a bear bother the can since.

Levy hasn't seen the critter, which she dubbed Mr. Bear, since.

In an effort to continue facilitating a peaceful coexistence between Volusia County residents and bears, Levy is helping provide Shadix's kits to locals for free.

The limit is one per family, and those interested in picking one up from Levy's office, Atlantic Law Center, 1335 Ridgewood Ave., in Daytona Beach should first call 386-256-3132.  

Levy is working with the FWC on scheduling an event at her office this fall so that residents can learn how to properly attach the cords to trash receptacles.

The success of the cords came as no surprise to Mike Orlando, an expert on Ursus Americanus Floridanus, more commonly known as the Florida black bear.

Straps with buckles affixed to garbage cans are an effective way to keep bears from rummaging through residential trash, officials say.

"Garbage is our number one issue that we have, and if we can secure that, our conflicts go down," said Orlando, who works in bear management with the FWC.

The Florida black bear is the only bear species found in the state. 

Intentionally feeding bears is against the law. Also against the law — if prior written notification has been issued — is "placing food or garbage, allowing the placement of food or garbage, or offering food or garbage that attracts bears and is likely to create or creates a nuisance," according to the FWC.

'Overdevelopment in Volusia is an enormous problem'

While Levy's fears for the bear that visited her street have been somewhat assuaged by the success of the trash cords, she and Shadix still worry for the species and how humans impact them, particularly with habitat fragmentation.

"Overdevelopment in Volusia is an enormous problem," Levy said. "I don’t think the citizens want what’s going on, and they definitely don’t want to pay for it."

Shadix, who lives in Geneva, echoed that sentiment.

"When I was growing up, we didn't have all of the urban sprawl that has destroyed a lot of the bear habitat," Shadix said.

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The FWC monitors the black bear populations by region, of which there are seven.

Volusia County falls in the central region, which also includes Alachua, Bradford, Brevard, Clay, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns and Sumter counties. There's also the Ocala/St. Johns subpopulation, named after the Ocala National Forest and St. Johns River watershed.

Most of the state's public conservation lands were purchased and are managed for myriad wildlife species, according to the FWC's Florida Black Bear Management Plan, which was updated in 2019.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's Central Bear Management Unit includes Alachua, Bradford, Brevard, Clay, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia counties as well as the Ocala/St. Johns subpopulation.

"Bear habitat is usually thought of as large, publicly owned forestlands because most subpopulations are centered on public lands, but bears occupy habitat regardless of ownership," the bear management plan states.

The FWC receives thousands of calls from the public each year about bears, according to the 2021 annual report on Florida black bear management and research. Partner agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Forest, and other law enforcement agencies also receive a plethora of calls.

Of the thousands the FWC annually receives, more than half come from the central region, data shows.

People in the central region made 34,257 calls from 2010 to 2021, according to the FWC. General interactions accounted for more than a third of the calls, and reports of bears getting into garbage accounted for more than a quarter of them.

During the 12-year period, the number of calls hit a high in 2014 at 4,161, data shows. The number dropped by a little more than 1,000 in 2015, and from 2016 to 2021, the number of calls fluctuated between 2,167 and 2,977.

The FWC received 2,278 bear-related calls out of Volusia County from 2017 through Aug. 31 of this year, data shows. The agency received 451 calls last year; from the start of 2022 through Aug. 31, the FWC received 345 calls from Volusia County.

Not attracting bears is 'Half the battle'

Even with significant development, residents can keep numbers of interactions low by following the laws related to bears and securing their garbage, Orlando said.

"Nobody will ever doubt the fact that habitat loss and fragmentation are big issues for wild animal populations," Orlando said. "When those developments go in, if we can make sure that those people are living in such a way that they're not leaving out attractants to bring those animals in to cause conflicts, then at least half the battle is won."

Black bears' habitats may change seasonally, but they generally prefer areas that are dense with trees and shrubs that produce fruit and nuts.

Orlando said male bears' home range can cover 60 square miles while females cover about 15 square miles.

"They don't just use one particular patch of woods," Orlando said. "If we secure that garbage, in most cases, that bear's going to move on."

A black bear seeks safety in a tree after drawing attention from humans in a neighborhood in DeLand in this file photo. Experts say while bears startle easily, humans should still give them plenty of space, and the bears will usually move along.

On the rare occasion when a bear crosses the line, the FWC may deem it a public safety threat and relocate or euthanize it, though the latter is generally a last resort.

In January the FWC euthanized a bear in DeBary after it attacked a woman while she was walking her dog. Officers didn't attempt to capture the bear's offspring as they were deemed old enough to survive on their own.

The FWC in June issued a report stating the fatal shooting of a juvenile black bear earlier in the month by Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies was unwarranted.

Orlando said black bears can live around humans pretty successfully with little impact on people.

Shadix agreed.

"I think the common misconception is that they’re aggressive," Shadix said. "They’re extremely easy to scare away."

Orlando said the rare instances where a bear has shown aggression usually involve a mother bear protecting her cubs.

"We don’t want people to be afraid of bears, but we do want them to have lots of respect for bears," Orlando said. "If you see a bear, enjoy it, but keep your distance. You have to take pictures from afar, don’t try to get close to get selfies."

For more information on living with bears, visit myfwc.com.