This month, after a bear attacked a Seminole County woman in her garage — the second such attack on a human in less than six months — Florida wildlife officials quickly killed seven bears they said appeared to be too aggressive and unafraid of people.
The killings sparked a controversy in Central Florida. Some argued the bears should have been relocated someplace far from people. Others — including a dozen legislators — called for a return to the 1970s, when Florida allowed bear hunting, at least in "hot spots" with problem bears.
In a way, Florida already has bear hunting, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley.
It's just that the hunters are all biologists working for Wiley's agency. And the number of bears they kill each year keeps increasing, until last year the number hit 25.
"We don't like doing that," Wiley said. "But that's the only tool we've got right now."
They can't relocate the bears because there's no place left in Florida to do so safely. The bears they have tried to move keep returning to root around in garbage cans, tear screens off windows and smash through sheds looking for food.
The most recent bear killed was one that last week terrified a Spring Hill woman by charging at her, forcing her to jump in her van and lock the doors. It then began sniffing around the hood. She chased it off by honking her horn.
Killing more than two dozen bears is "too large a number," said Laurie MacDonald of the Florida chapter of Defenders of Wildlife, which advocates for better bear management.
As for the legislators' proposal of bringing back hunting in "hot spots," she said, "Hunting is not going to get the bears that are causing the problems. You can't hunt in people's neighborhoods."
Both of the recent attacks in which people were injured occurred in suburban areas where bears had been seen before. On Dec. 2, Susan Chalfant, 54, was attacked while walking two small dogs in her gated community. Biologists killed three bears, but it turned out the one who attacked her was another one, a female with cubs. They captured the female and cubs and took them to Busch Gardens in Tampa. The cubs will be released when they're old enough, but the mother will remain captive.
Then, on April 12, Terri Frana, 44, walked into her garage and found five bears going through her garbage. One attacked her, clamping its jaws around her head and dragging her toward the woods. She escaped, and soon biologists swooped in and started picking off every overly aggressive bear they saw.
The way it works, biologists bait a culvert-shaped trap with a doughnut, a commercial bear-hunting scent or perhaps some chicken grease. When the bear crawls into the metal pipe and grabs the bait, that triggers the trap door closing. Then biologists inject it with a fatal dose of drugs, euthanizing the animal.
From 2007 to 2011, the state's wildlife biologists killed between 13 and 19 overly aggressive bears each year, according to David Telesco, the state's bear management coordinator.
But then in 2012, the complaints of bears rampaging through neighborhoods killing chickens, breaking into homes and splashing in backyard pools increased. State biologists killed 22 of them that year.
Last year the complaints soared even higher, and state biologists killed 25 bears. Some were not killed by trapping and drugging, Telesco said.
"We free-ranged a couple," he said. That means shooting at a bear that is still free, trying to hit it with a dart that delivers a fatal dose of drugs.
Some of the bears that the wildlife biologists have killed had been trapped and moved elsewhere, to no avail. The notes on one say, "Caught 12-06-12. Entered screen porch, broke into freezer, damaged screens, doors, freezer. Relocated. Caught on 12-22-12 in same neighborhood. Chickens killed (6), set trap, caught 50' from chicken coop next night after chickens killed. Euthanized."
It doesn't have to be this way, Wiley said. While Central Florida's bear complaints have soared, complaints at Hurlburt Field, an Air Force base in the Panhandle, have dropped by about 80 percent, he said.
The key was installing bear-proof trash cans everywhere, at $200 a can, and getting everyone to watch a short instructional video on the smart way to live in bear territory, offering such tips as: Put your trash cans out for pickup early in the morning rather than late at night.
But what's easy to do on a military base, where everyone follows orders, is not so easy in a Florida suburb populated with folks who may not want to get up early.
"People are reluctant to change their lifestyle to deal with a bear population," Wiley said.
And so for now the biologists' bear hunt will continue — although, unlike with other kinds of hunting, there will be no trophies to display or meat to cook. Euthanized bears are unfit for human consumption because of the drugs used to kill them, Telesco said. Instead, they are incinerated, converting Florida's largest land mammal into a pile of ash.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @craigtimes.