State wildlife officers rushed to Weston again Tuesday, after a resident reported a third bear sighting early that morning. They couldn't find the bear -- spotted sitting by the side of Manatee Isles Drive -- but they are ready with a trap in case it returns, as part of the state's struggle with a soaring number of bear complaints.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received 2,969 nuisance bear calls last year, up from 450 in 1998. With housing developments expanding into bear habitat, the state is working on a management plan to help people learn to live with them. Hunters, including one hunting club president who described bear meat as "excellent," have called for a resumption of bear hunting, a proposal that would face a fierce fight from wildlife advocates.
Bears once roamed the forested land now occupied by Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, often walking onto the beach at night to dig up sea turtle nests. "It was an easy matter to kill a bear in turtle season," wrote Charles Pierce in Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida. "All a hunter had to do was take up a position in the grass a few feet back from the open beach, sit down and make himself as inconspicuous as possible, and wait for the bear to come along."
Hunting was gradually restricted and then banned in 1994. The bear population started climbing, to about 3,000 from a low point of as few as 500 in the 1950s.
But with road kills and nuisance calls up, hunters have called for a restoration of bear hunting.
"When we had bear hunting, we didn't have the issue we have today," said Mark Dombroski, a Royal Palm Beach hunter and president of the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association. "We didn't have as many bear collisions."
Although he has never shot a bear, he has eaten bear twice and describes it as "excellent."
Laura Bevin, eastern regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, said hunting would do little to solve a problem of bear-human interactions.
"We're moving into their territory, so we have to learn how to get along," she said. "If it's not a problem bear, I don't see the need to hunt and kill it."
David Telesco, black bear management coordinator for the state wildlife commission, said it would be difficult to restore hunting because bears are on the state's protected species list and changes to the list are on hold.
Nuisance complaints tend to focus on overturned garbage cans, road kills and neighborhood sightings. Although the complaints generally come from central and northern Florida, bears occasionally have turned up in the southeast part of the state. In 2002, for example, a 200-pound bear prowled the Melrose Park subdivision west of Boynton Beach. And two months ago, a bear was struck on Florida's Turnpike in Miami-Dade County.
Telesco said Weston bear was probably a young male leaving its mother and looking for a territory that wasn't already occupied by another male. "It's standard for them to turn up in areas where you don't expect them," he said. It was spotted Tuesday sitting by the side of Manatee Isles Drive, said Jorge Pino, spokesman for the state wildlife commission.
Road kills have gone up sharply, with 158 bears fatally struck last year. Although there is no documented report of a black bear attacking a person in Florida, fatal attacks have occurred in other states.
But the very fact that there are more encounters between bears and people is a sign of the animal's resurgence.
"It is a success story in that the bear population is doing well, but you have disconnected populations and an increase in human-bear interactions," Telesco said. "You want to keep bears wild so you can live in bear country and not have any negative effects."
Staff Writer Joel Marino contributed to this story. David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4535.