A program to help local communities reduce run-ins between people and bears failed to make it into next year's state budget, disappointing wildlife advocates.
Lawmakers had considered earmarking $500,000 to help local governments provide bear-resistant, lock-top garbage cans, a strategy that has proved successful in curbing dangerous human-bear conflicts in Central Florida's wildlife corridor. But they trimmed the money from the final $91.1 billion budget.
"I am afraid that the loss of state appropriations to assist communities and local governments in obtaining 'BearWise' cans is going to significantly reduce the number of communities that become 'bear-wise,' effectively halting the progress that has been made," said Gary Kaleita, who drafted the policy used in the Wingfield North community in Seminole County where he resides.
BearWise trash containers have a locking lid to keep bears out.
State wildlife officials are hopeful they can plug the funding gap.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has provided funding assistance over the last several years to local governments that adopt so-called "BearWise" ordinances.
Such ordinances require residents and businesses to use the lock-top containers and follow other rules such as keeping pet food indoors and removing bird feeders, which can lure the wide-ranging omnivores into neighborhoods.
"FWC will discuss future 'BearWise' funding needs in the coming months to best determine how to proceed," said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the agency.
FWC has provided more than $2 million to date to help Florida communities co-exist with bears, including $1.26 million to Seminole, Lake and Orange combined. Those funds have helped pay for nearly 10,000 lock-top trash bins in those counties as well as electric fencing systems and other measures to help residents lock up garbage.
Those three counties typically rank near the top of the state list for most complaints to the FWC's nuisance-bear hotline.
Though priced at about $200, bear-resistant have proven effective in communities where bears became nuisances.
Wingfield North, a gated Longwood community where the state's worst mauling occurred in December 2013, is often cited as an example of how "BearWise" rules and bear-resistant containers prevent conflicts between people and bears. The neighborhood was the state's first community to require all residents to use the cans, which the homeowners association bought.
"Our program has been very successful for coming up on 5 years now, and the cans were critical in making that happen," said Kaleita, a lawyer with Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed in Orlando. "As you probably know, unsecured household trash is the most significant bear attractant, and the widespread use of bear-resistant trash cans in a community solves about 90% of bear incursion problems."
Other homeowner groups have paid for trash cans with association fees.
Some cities such as Apopka have kicked in matching funds for beleaguered neighborhoods.
The cost of providing bear-resistant cans in a community of 250 homes is about $50,000.
"Very few HOA's [homeowners associations] have that kind of money available," Kaleita said.
Grant money has been instrumental in helping less affluent communities.
"I think some County Commissions and City Councils in bear-prone areas will have to make some tough choices," Kaleita said.
The grant program was created after FWC staged a bear hunt in 2015 — the first in two decades — that killed 304 bears.
Jay Exum, a Longwood resident who serves as chairman of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said lock-top trash bins made a difference in his neighborhood, which also borders a wildlife corridor. He said government funding subsides helped pay for the bins.
"Without BearWise rules and bear-resistant cans, there's going to be conflicts," he said. "Don't kid yourself: bears are there."
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which has provided $680,000 for bear-resistant cans, announced last month it would give $16,000 to FWC for motion-activated cameras.
The devices provided real-time photographs and videos for immediate viewing, which the agency hopes will reduce the amount of time bears are in traps and increase understanding of bear activity.
FWC conducts over 300 trapping efforts a year to reduce and resolve human-bear conflicts.
The foundation's funding comes from sales of the "Conserve Wildlife" specialty license plate, which features a black bear.
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