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FL Black Bear Festival: Big Business Learning About Living in Bear Country

March 27, 2009

Umatilla, FL - In this small town, about an hour northwest of Orlando, black bears are a big deal and big business; attracting as many as 10,000 people every year to the outskirts of the Ocala National Forest for the annual Florida Black Bear Festival. This Saturday is the 10th-annual festival, dedicated to helping people understand how to live and play in bear country.

Judy Gillan, outreach coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, says bears have gotten a bad reputation, and the festival helps calm some fears.

"They’re not dangerous attack animals. These are wild animals. We want to keep them wild, and everybody can co-exist to the benefit of both people and bears."

Susan Martin, chairman of the Umatilla Chamber of Commerce, says the area has the highest density of bears in the state, and at least one of the bears sited within city limits was found going to school.

"We actually had a black bear visit our high school. It was coming up to eat concession stand garbage. So, we need to learn how to limit the bear’s accessibility to our food. "

As people have moved into bear territory, there have been more encounters. Laurie MacDonald, Florida director of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the founders of the festival, says bears are shy creatures that leave people alone, but they are drawn to any source of food. The festival educates people living near bears about taking their responsibility seriously, she says.

"Bears are big eating machines, in a way. They have an extremely sensitive sense of smell. We don’t want to see anyone encouraging bears to do bad behavior. "

Wildlife managers say bears will eat anything, so people need to do their part by keeping pet food inside, not using bird feeders, and waiting to put garbage out until the morning of the pickup. At the festival, in addition to live music and lots of food, there will be field trips into bear habitat, biologists talking about bear behavior, and demonstrations on how to keep bears from making your home their home.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL