TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida wildlife officials will have less money this year to help communities equip residents and businesses with bear-proof trash containers.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Thursday the start of a nearly three-month application period for local governments and others seeking “BearWise” funding for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The agency has $515,000 to match with local government funding to help people and businesses buy bear-resistant trash cans and hardware to secure regular trash cans and to have modified dumpsters. The amount is down from $825,000 last year.
Money generated by a controversial 2015 bear hunt was available last year. The commission voted against holding similar hunts in 2016 and 2017.
A majority of the “BearWise” money will go to communities that have enacted ordinances requiring residents and businesses to keep garbage secure from bears looking for food.
Roughly 4,000 black bears are estimated to live in Florida, from the forests of Southwest Florida through the Panhandle.
The current population is considered a success story, as the numbers had fallen to as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s when bears were put on the state's list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.
But as the bear population has rebounded and more homes and businesses have been built in the animals' native habitats, incidents of human-bear interactions have grown.
Lawmakers approved $415,000 for the “BearWise” project for this fiscal year, with an additional $100,000 coming from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida through the sale of “Conserve Wildlife” license plates.
An agency spokeswoman pointed to those numbers when asked if this year's reduction in available money for the “BearWise” program was due to the absence of funds generated by a bear hunt.
“Each year the Legislature has a process where they determine how much money they fund to specific programs,” spokeswoman Carli Segelson said in an email. “This year it was $415,000 and last year it was $500,000 for the BearWise funding. Similarly the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida has a process to allocate funding. This year they provided $100,000 and last year they provided $325,000 for this project.”
Sales of the Conserve Wildlife licenses plates fell from 15,402 in 2015 to 13,502 last year.
The 2015 bear hunt was the first in more than two decades. The hunt lasted two days and resulted in 304 bears being killed.
When the commission started awarding “BearWise” money last December, a release noted that roughly $375,000 of the money put up by the Legislature came from the sale of permits for the 2015 hunt. The rest of the money approved by the Legislature was from the State Game Trust Fund. The state sold 3,778 permits, reaping about $377,000.
Last year, three Central Florida counties -- Seminole, Lake and Orange -- each received $200,000 through the “BearWise” program, while the rest of the money was spread among eight other counties, three cities and two homeowner associations.
Overall the money was used to purchase 4,000 bear-resistant trash cans, 2,500 sets of hardware to secure regular trash cans and 40 dumpsters that were modified to keep bears out.