Florida Wildlife Agency Looking to Waste Industry to Help Curb Bear-Human Interactions

Florida Wildlife Agency Looking to Waste Industry to Help Curb Bear-Human Interactions

Improperly disposed of garbage isn’t only messy. In some cases, it can also be dangerous.

For example, the scent of garbage that’s not properly disposed of is drawing black bears into residential neighborhoods, leading to dangerous interactions.

Now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is pushing for mandated bear-proof cans to keep the animals away from what could be harmful garbage and from the forming of potentially harmful habits.

“Education is key,” said FWC Chairman Richard Corbett in a recent press release. “We know that bear feeding is an issue, so we need to continue to be proactive and responsive with our efforts. Properly securing garbage and other attractants is the single most important action for reducing conflict situations with bears.”

The commission signed a Waste Management Resolution and approved a policy paper, explaining the need for comprehensive waste management to address human-bear conflicts and improve public safety.

In some areas across the state, where bear-human interactions have become more common, bear attacks are in the news.

In response to those attacks and interactions, the FWC contacted the Florida chapter of National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) in June suggesting that some of the problem of black bears in human-populated areas is the result of unprotected garbage cans and roll-off containers. The suggestion was made that bear-proof containers are the answer to the problem, says Keyna Cory, lobbyist for NWRA's Florida chapter.

However, says Cory, Florida is a franchise state, so each community tells the hauler what kind of cans they’ll have, when pickup will be, etc. A blanket change for the state may not be a realistic option as sometimes local government pays for containers, but sometimes it’s built into the cost of collection. Switching to bear-proof bins can cost as much as $200 per container. Then there’s the issue of automated collection that would be necessary to pick up the heavier, bear-proof cans. 

Since June 2014, of the 23,000 residences in the county, approximately 390 bear-proof bins have been purchased from county haulers, Florida-based Waste Pro and Pennsylvania-based Advanced Disposal, Edwards says. The county, he says, may not have been ready to mandate the bins as the costs for 23,000 bins could run between $4 million and $5 million. And there’s no guarantee the bear-proof bins will keep the bears out of neighborhoods. In one recent situation, a black bear ate a 20-pound bag of dog food at a residence and proceeded to take a long nap in the yard. So it’s not just the garbage that needs to be considered.

An issue in the beginning, Edwards adds, was the 94-gallon bear-resistant bins the agency suggested were too thick and heavy for workers handling the manual solid waste pick-up. Haulers agreed to retrofit trucks for semi-automated pickup and to use 64-gallon bear-proof containers. Only those residents who chose to pay the additional cost for a bear-proof bin received them.

Though Edwards says he cannot speak yet to the success of the use of those cans, bears are making an appearance in the area, but so far,  a relatively small amount of residents are willing to pay the extra costs for bear-proof containers.

“We’re learning,” he says. “It’s not an issue that’s going away any time soon.” 

At first blush, the agency thought requesting a few million dollars from the legislature for new cans would do the trick, but after talking with NWRA's Chuck Dees, they were ready to hear more.

Dees agreed to do a presentation at an FWC meeting in Sarasota last month, where he explained the association was there on behalf of its members “to be part of the solution, not to be the solution.”

It has to be big picture, she says.

NWRA has agreed to sit down with various agencies involved to determine problem areas, and to perhaps plan a pilot program in some areas to learn what works. Bear-human contact is taking place everywhere from rural areas to gated communities.

“We’ve all agreed we’re going to be working on this issue together," Cory says. "There’s no magic wand to make this whole thing go away. We’re going to have to figure out together, collectively, what’s the best solution for each community. And I think they’re on board."

Florida has grown so fast, she says, and humans have gone into the bear’s neighborhoods. It’s an issue more complex than bear-proof bins.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to come up with a plan of action,” she says.

The commission has no authority to mandate the bins. Local governments do. However, it is unlikely the state legislature, who Cory says are not “big on mandates,” would do something statewide to focus on a more concentrated area that encounter these bear issues There also aren’t a lot of bears in Miami Beach, for example, she says.

Across the state, however, the black bear population has grown to such numbers, the FWC has started to push for the bear-proof bins while also authorizing the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years.

In Seminole County, Fla., the FWC helped with grant monies for optional bear-proof cans for residents last year. An uptick in media coverage of black bears in neighborhoods and a few bear attacks of residents and pets was the initial catalyst for the new bins, Seminole County Solid Waste Manager Johnny Edwards says.

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