TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Most people would be slightly unnerved to wake up, walk out to the curb and find a fully grown Florida black bear feasting on their trash.
It has become a more common occurrence this year in Tyndall Air Force Base's residential housing areas, as a growing black bear population has become increasingly brazen in gorging on last night's leftovers, pet food stored on car ports and whatever smells tasty at the moment.
"Over the last four years, there's been an increase in problems. And it's peaked this year," said Allen Richmond, chief of conservation for Tyndall's 325th Civil Engineer Squadron Natural Resources.
Richmond and his staff have introduced different methods, including overnight patrols on trash pickup days, to keep the bears from morphing from a nuisance to a possible public safety hazard.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Stan Kirkland said there never has been a recorded black bear attack on a human in Florida, although he noted there have been attacks in other states.
The Florida black bear, the state's largest native land mammal, is listed as a threatened species and the FWC estimates there are 2,500 to 3,000 of the animals in the state.
Kirkland said bears generally enter Tyndall from the base's extreme northeast corner, and he recently saw a bear trying to cross U.S. 98 just east of the base.
"Everybody loves them, but when they come into urban areas, it's not a good situation," Kirkland said.
Richmond doesn't know the exact number of bears living in Tyndall's vast wooded area, but his staff counted 135 housing units with trash cans hit by bears in August.
That's an increase from 95 in July, and Richmond said the swell in bear activity has continued into October.
"We think it's six adult bears that are actively hitting the trash cans, with four cubs actively tagging along," Richmond said, adding that the bears seem wary of people so far.
In addition to the base's public education efforts, Tyndall also has had limited success with trash can lid restraints and Natural Resources staff scaring off the bears with paintball guns, Richmond said.
The FWC issued Tyndall's Natural Resources department a permit earlier this year to trap and relocate bears, in coordination with state staff, to more remote areas of the base.
On first capture, Natural Resources can relocate a bear to another part of the base, with the state telling the department the second time where to put the animal.
Richmond said in the past month, his department has trapped, tagged and relocated a 175-pound female and 235-pound male, bears he thought had recently left their mothers and struck out on their own.
Bears trapped and tranquilized by the department are fitted with green ear tags and given lip tattoos with numbers that match those printed on the tags, Richmond said.
Those bears also have DNA samples taken and a tooth extracted, with staff members checking to see if the bear has existing ear tags and/ or tattoos, he said.
"It's not pleasant for them," Richmond said of the bears who wander into the traps.
Outside of his office, Richmond showed off one of the traps, equipped with a mounted cage and a trap door that swings shut when a bear pulls on a bait bag.
Juvenile bears often are easier to catch, Richmond said, with older bears more wary about venturing into confined spaces.
"Bears are very smart animals. They will learn and remember the traps," Richmond said.
Feeding bears is illegal in Florida, Kirkland said, although he stressed the department doesn't go looking for people to arrest on bear-feeding charges.
"When you start feeding them, you're asking for problems," Kirkland said.
He said there have been isolated incidents recorded in Bay and surrounding counties over the years of bears tearing doors off storage buildings and trailers.
Richmond said he hopes the Tyndall bears will find more of their natural food sources in October and the coming months and rely less on residents' garbage for their needs.
Whatever the bears decide, Richmond said he wants Tyndall residents to exercise caution and do what they can to eliminate the animals' trips into residential housing areas
From the bear sightings reported at Tyndall, Richmond said his office has heard from several parents that their children came upon the bears in the morning as they left for school.
"That's a little too close for comfort," Richmond said.