TAMPA — In the wake of the worst bear attack on a human in Florida history, state wildlife officials are asking the Legislature for a half-million dollars to help them respond more quickly to complaints about bears.
"This will give us more boots on the ground and more equipment to deal with bear issues," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley said Wednesday.
In December, a black bear mauled Susan Chalfant, 54, of Longwood, who had been walking her dogs in her suburban neighborhood. The bear bit her on the head, face and neck before she escaped. Her dogs were untouched.
"That bear was trying to kill me," she told an investigator. "It just kept coming,"
State wildlife officials captured and killed two male bears they found roaming in the area before capturing the one responsible for the attack. It turned out to be a female with three cubs, one of which was killed by a car near the scene of the attack.
The female bear and the remaining two cubs are being held at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The cubs will be released back into the wild in the spring, wildlife commission bear coordinator Thomas Eason said. But the female bear will remain in captivity for the rest of her life.
"This incident really did elevate our attention," Wiley told the wildlife commissioners, who are meeting in Tampa this week.
In 1974, when the state's bear population had dwindled to an estimated 300, the state banned hunting them. Now the estimated population is 3,000. As the population has grown, so have the number of complaints about bears showing up where people now live — taking a dip in the hot tub, for instance, or breaking into a storage shed looking for grub.
In 2011, a bear complaint hotline handled about 4,000 calls, Wiley said. In 2012, that number had increased 50 percent to about 6,000.
When complaints require someone to go capture a bear, the state dispatches one of a dozen or so contractors called "bear response agents," Eason said. The program is modeled on the state's system of relying on a network of freelance alligator trappers to handle gators causing problems, he said.
The request for $500,000 is not for hiring more state employees, but for adding to or expanding the network of bear response agents, Eason said.
The money also would help launch a statewide survey of the bear population, by collecting hair samples from areas where bears are common and then comparing their DNA. That project is expected to take three years, he said.