US Air Force’s Hurlburt Field Black Bear Management Challenges
Department of Defense (DoD) lands, which account for approximately 30 million acres of pristine ecological habitat and rare species, provide a realistic setting for training, testing and mission readiness. Since the Sikes Act was passed in 1960, military managers have been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and state wildlife representatives to successfully manage natural resources in compliance with federal law with no net loss to the mission. Maintaining this balance has proven to be quite a challenge for one Florida installation where biodiversity is at a premium and seeing wildlife is a common and usually rewarding experience. However, too much of a good thing required this military community to learn a valuable lesson about environmental stewardship in order to maintain an inevitable coexistence with an unusual member of its family. Welcome to Hurlburt Field, home of the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing (1 SOW), the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the Florida Black Bear.
Ursus americanus floridanus, a subspecies of the American Black Bear and the largest land mammal living in Florida, calls Hurlburt Field and Northwest Florida home. More than 15,000 active duty military members, families and civilians live and work on the base, which consists of prime wildlife habitat and, not surprisingly, an abundance of easily accessible garbage. A bear’s caloric needs can be fulfilled in a few minutes by devouring the contents of one garbage can when otherwise they would need to forage for hours for the equivalent in nuts, berries and plants. This smorgasbord of treats provided an open invitation to bears that were literally running through the streets of Hurlburt Field day and night. Needless to say, at this point the bears were no longer cute and, for many, the close encounters posed a frightening, daily experience.
Results of Shrinking Bear Habitats
Bears were not always a problem in Florida and, in fact, are still considered a threatened species in the state. Only in recent years has the Florida Black Bear rebounded from conservation efforts as outlined in Chapter 68A-27 of the Florida Administrative Code. Since about 1960, the number of bears in Florida has grown from approximately 300 to 3000.
Conservation efforts were applauded, but as the bear population charged down the road to recovery, the rapid growth of urban development and the increased use of forested areas for camping and hiking continued to shrink the distance between human and bear habitat.
Much like humans, bears are motivated by their need to eat. Bears can smell food up to one mile away, and it is this keen sense of smell that assists them in travelling great distances in search of food. The adult male usually weighs between 200 and 400 pounds with the female averaging less than 250 pounds. Bears take in most of their calories in the Fall after the summer breeding season, sometimes consuming up to 20,000 calories per day. Anticipation of colder weather and an associated lack of food can easily drive a male bear to traverse more than 100 square miles during the height of foraging. While females do not travel as far, it is this home range that provides the bear with all the luxuries of home, i.e., food, water and shelter.
Once a bear’s home range consistently overlaps urban areas and unnatural food sources are present, problems arise. Wild bears with ongoing access to pet food, garbage or dirty barbeque grills will become habituated to that environment. If food sources are not removed, bears will continue to teach their young to forage in the same manner and to associate people with food. They become more confident in approaching homes and people, sometimes damaging property in the process or potentially placing themselves or homeowners in threatening situations. Habituated bears are no longer wild and most likely will never return to their natural environment.
Unlike the brown bear or grizzly, black bears will usually avoid confrontation and are characteristically shy. Food-conditioned bears, even though a bit bolder around humans, will demonstrate their fear or uneasiness by pawing the ground, huffing, clacking their teeth or even “bluff charging.” These behaviors are usually misunderstood by people, who interpret the actions as aggressive. Since 1990, more than 25,000 conflicts have been reported in Florida. Of these, not one black bear attack has been documented, although several injuries were documented in situations where the bear was cornered or did not have a way to escape.
Hurlburt’s Black Bear Story
In 2008, some Hurlburt residents were still surprised at the presence of bears in Florida despite the increasing frequency of calls that coincided with their July to November feeding frenzy.
Most calls were to report a bear in a tree, a bear in a dumpster or bears in garbage cans. However, occasional calls would report a screen being torn or a fence damaged by bears attempting to access food left on porches or in backyards. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was regularly engaged to assist with problem solving.
Educational fliers entitled, “Living in Bear Country,” were distributed door-to-door, and latches began to be installed on residential plastic garbage cans to render them bear-resistant. Multiple articles were written and distributed in the base newspaper and through local media outlets. Annual training classes taught by FWC were coordinated for Security Forces troops, area biologists and natural resource/wildlife managers to become certified in aversive conditioning methods. More than 150 first responders were certified at Hurlburt in three years.
Certified personnel, working under a permitted agency like Hurlburt, were authorized to use nonlethal tactics like pyrotechnics or paintball guns to haze bears. Bears had become accustomed to the lights and sirens frequently used by Security Forces troops. Residents were encouraged to purchase air horns, bang pots and pans or yell in an effort to recondition the bear away from human populations.
By July 21, 2009, bear activity began right on schedule and continued on an almost a daily basis through the end of the year. All 650 residential housing unit refuse containers now had latches, but many were being damaged by an automatic pick-up mechanism on the garbage truck, thus making it easy for the bears to rip open the thin, plastic lids. The metal latches required constant maintenance or replacement, which was performed by FWC and base volunteers. The flow of information about bears was ramped up to include orientation classes that reached approximately 75 to100 new airmen and families each month.
The Natural Resources Manager (NRM) began tracking bear calls by date, location and type of activity. She worked with Public Affairs (PA) to create a “Bear Awareness” section on the Hurlburt Field website home page, which became a repository of educational information and news articles. FWC representatives and the NRM attended multiple community festivals, thus teaching more than 3,000 people per year about what attracts bears, what to do if they see a bear and about bear behaviors.
In 2010, the first bear call came in early March. While bears were being reported base-wide, most activity was still concentrated in family housing. But now, the bears were appearing in playgrounds, sniffing at doorknobs and peering in windows even when no obvious food source was nearby. Activity consistently heightened the night garbage cans went out to the curb before the twice-a-week pick-up. Replacement of metal latches on the cans was a futile attempt to secure the garbage.
Social networking strategies employed to interact with the base community provided valuable information from residents and, more importantly, boosted the community’s awareness that Natural Resources and base leadership were taking an active role in reducing bear activity. An off-the-shelf communication plan, developed by the NRM and PA provided talking points, education tactics and procedures for dissemination of bear information to the public.
The NRM worked steadily with resources personnel, housing, operations and base contracting to modify refuse contractor work statements, secure funding and order new steel-lined bear-proof cans with automatic lid latching systems. The refuse contractor worked cooperatively with base agencies and was a key member of the team.
The tracking of human/bear conflicts was revised to mirror state tracking methods. For example, a bear in a tree is a natural behavior and not considered a conflict. However, a bear in garbage or a bear causing property damage is a conflict and recorded as such. This documentation would help to identify problem bears through their repeat activities, behaviors and routines while providing support for wildlife decision-makers. The NRM worked closely with the FWC Bear Management Coordinator for the State of Florida and participated in quarterly black bear communication meetings with state officials and area wildlife managers. FWC officials and the NRM frequented the housing areas, talked to residents and spent hours responding to call after call.
The peak of activity culminated just after Thanksgiving, when it appeared that seven bears had taken up residence at a vacant duplex located right in the middle of main base housing. Most of their day and night was spent leaping back and forth between low hanging limbs and the roof to forage in oak trees, which were heavily laden with acorns. Residents were uneasy, but not panicked, as they were used to seeing bears come and go. However, it was no longer a rewarding experience.
Following lengthy coordination with FWC, input from leadership and discussions with residents, the decision was made to trap and relocate. Relocation was not a preferred practice as most habituated bears are usually successful in returning to their home range while risking their safety and the safety of motorists as they cross busy roads. Others would return to their old ways in another neighborhood.
On a cold, rainy night in December, six of the bears were located and removed from the housing area through a spectacular chain of events. Base agencies pulled together to assist FWC by providing the means to safely remove the 50- to 60-pound cubs from the limbs of several large oak trees, which were far out of reach. In one effort, firefighters positioned a large tarp under the tree to catch the tranquilized bear that was wedged in between branches. In another, a bucket truck was used to reach another darted cub.
Over a period of about eight hours all the bears were successfully tranquilized, measured, tattooed and tagged. This information would help biologists learn more about the bears and track them in the future. The bears were transported in three large traps, which held two sows and their respective cubs. The two bear families were released just a few hours later to a remote area of the range.
Within 48 hours, three of the bears were back. Trees were trimmed and electric fencing now encircled the house as a preventive effort to keep the bears from returning to the same location. The new garbage cans had arrived and were put in place by the first of January. Some residents continued to use old, unsecured methods for storing garbage, and bears were now targeting open dumpsters. The Civil Engineering (CE) Commander approved an enforcement initiative to ticket housing residents who did not secure their garbage, and hardware was purchased and installed on dumpster doors base-wide.
A few weeks later, bear behaviors, refuse management and safety concerns were addressed with residents via a town hall meeting. FWC’s State of Florida bear management coordinator, the CE Commander and approximately 15 other wildlife experts and base representatives discussed facts and perspectives helpful in creating a safer and more bear-aware community. Many concerns, such as the bears’ behavior towards the new bear-proof garbage cans, were alleviated. Attentive and responsible refuse management by the base community was again the discussion focal point.
The NRM continued to work with Security Forces to improve the detail of nuisance wildlife reports, and a standardized bear reporting form was created using a Microsoft SharePoint tool, eDASH. Now Security Forces personnel would be able to quickly gather vital information from the caller at dispatch. This notification form would assist in decreasing the time it took to track down information about incidences and would quickly provide statistics through queries over time. A training video for first responders was developed and placed on a website, which was accessible base-wide, and the NRM continued to brief bear awareness to Air Force personnel. Florida Department of Law Enforcement and FWC guidance on aversive conditioning was incorporated into Security Forces’ standard operating procedures and, as a result, the first successful hazing of bears using paintball guns occurred early in the year.
By October 2011, only 66 bear calls had occurred, which represents a 70 percent decrease in complaints and activity year-to-date. Just one year previous, calls and conflicts totaled more than 220 incidences. Shortly thereafter, Hurlburt Field was recognized by FWC in an award ceremony to highlight their efforts to control, protect and lead the way as a bear-safe community. “At Hurlburt we strive to have as little impact on the natural environment as possible,” said Base Wing Commander Colonel James C. Slife. “Although the bear-proof containers helped us achieve that objective, the root cause of our success has been the cooperation and dedication that our airmen and families have shown in using the tools provided to them,” he added.
For all military bases change is a constant, but for Hurlburt, so is coexisting with bears and other wildlife. For that reason, proactive management approaches are key principles in realizing continued success with the measures currently in place. Potential changes in the listing status of the bear could bring a perceived change in the management of the species, although penalties for killing or injuring a bear will still exist. As the population is being re-evaluated for delisting, it will remain illegal to intentionally feed bears or hunt bears. The move towards privatization in military family housing will also bring several challenges to the standardized management of refuse. The likelihood that residents will be able to choose refuse contractors that do not provide bear-proof containers is great. A choice of multiple contractors could potentially result in unsecured garbage cans being on the street most days of the week.
Just across the fence in nearby communities, unsecured food sources remain abundant, and FWC works hard to build relationships with local refuse service providers so that bear-proof containers can be offered at minimal cost to residents. Hurlburt Field recognizes its role as a leader in the management and conservation of the Florida Black Bear not only for the local community but for the entire State of Florida. The base is proud of the application of environmental values that its community has learned to successfully integrate into the military mission. Their persistence and perseverance has greatly improved quality of life, strengthened civil relations and protected and conserved a valued member of the Hurlburt Field family.
Creating a Bear-Safe Community at Hurlburt Field (2008-Present)
- Ongoing Education and Awareness
- Remove Attractants
- Secured cans with more than 800 latches, repeatedly installed to retrofit 680 housing refuse containers
- Secured more than 90 dumpsters equipped with sliding door locks and warning signs
- Secured more than $150K to purchase bear-proof containers; first in the region
- Aversive Conditioning Training/Certification
- More than 150 first responders trained since 2008
- Integrating FWC guidance into Security Forces Standard Operating Procedures
- Ticketing for noncompliance in use of bear-proof containers
- Conservation and Protection Efforts
- Maintain strong partnerships with FWC
- Foster partnerships among base agencies
- Be involved with state wildlife management plans