Neighborhood hopes new trash cans, rules solve bear problems

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak

Published October 2, 2016


Soon after Kristopher Thorpe moved to Markham Oaks, he discovered the lush Seminole County neighborhood was a favored rest stop on the "bear highway."

Bears of all sizes, nearly as common as squirrels, have broken into his lanai, tipped over refrigerators and tromped yard to yard foraging in garbage bins for grub.

Thorpe bought a wooden enclosure to protect his own trash containers, figuring the $500 pen would keep the big animals out. It lasted one day, he said.

Thorpe and Markham Oaks' other homeowners opted Wednesday for a new approach toward their clawed, furry neighbors by signing up to become the latest "bear-wise" community in Central Florida.

Each received bear-resistant trash containers at no cost, agreed to pay trash-hauler WastePro an extra $60 a year service fee to unlock and handle the bins and offered to log all bear sightings over the next two years.

"We hope the residents' monthly surveys give us data to show this approach works like we think it will," said Virginia Oros of the Wekiva Wild and Scenic River System Program, one of the groups helping the neighborhood. "We hope it protects people and bears."

The neighborhood, off Markham Woods Road, is within two miles of communities where three bear maulings have occurred since December 2013.

Residents of Wingfield North and Wingfield Reserve, two nearby gated communities, have logged fewer bear complaints with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission since mandating use of the lock-top garbage bins, which the creatures can't easily open.

FWC and the Humane Society of the United States shared the cost of providing each of the 16 homes in the small Markham Oaks neighborhood with a bear-resistant container, which cost about $180 per can.

Mike Orlando, FWC's assistant bear program coordinator, said the efforts are meant to reduce potentially dangerous interactions between bears and residents.

"They all have the same issues," he said of neighborhoods near the Wekiva River. "They live right up against some of the best bear habitat in the state of Florida."

Orlando said bears will wander through these communities, but that's not what worries the wildlife agency.

"What we're concerned about is having bears stop, get into garbage, get into a screened porch, finding something ... that's going to keep them around," he said.

David Germana, vice president of the Markham Oaks homeowners association, said he hopes the community's approach helps prevent dangerous run-ins with bears. "We've had a lot of close encounters," he said.

The new containers, delivered Wednesday by a WastePro crew, arrived as the black bear's most active season approaches. The animals try to fatten up before winter. As they seek out food, they tend to become problems in neighborhoods as reports of nuisance bears spike in October and November in Central Florida.

FWC hopes other communities in bear habitat areas will encourage residents to use the lock-top trash cans. Lake, Orange and Seminole counties all have applied for a piece of the $825,000 the agency is making available to defray the cost of the containers.

Orange County is expected to adopt an ordinance in November to address increasing complaints about nuisance bears in the northwest portion of the county. That will likely include financial aid for residents who buy lock-top cans.

Experts believe some bears are making their way from Seminole County, where bear-proof trash bins are more common, to Orange County neighborhoods where the pickings are easier.

Florida has about 4,000 bears, according to FWC's updated population count released last week.

The new trash cans may help reduce human/bear conflicts in Markham Oaks, but the problem could end up moving.

"I know the question is, 'Isn't that going to be somebody else's problem?'" Thorpe said. "Yes, it is, but it's not going to be ours."