Sprawling development, increasing human populations, the desire to live and recreate in areas that were once remote, combined with the successful restoration of black bear populations by state wildlife agencies have resulted in more frequent sightings of bears, even in populous areas in the Southeastern United States. As the human footprint continues to expand into bear habitat, there is a growing need for people to share the land and avoid human-bear conflicts.

Recognizing this need, wildlife agencies throughout the southeast have been working together to develop a strategy for educating the public on best practices to coexist with black bears. In 2018, the 15 member states of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies launched BearWise®.

BearWise is a regional outreach effort to provide science-based resources and communicate consistent and effective messaging about how to live responsibly with black bears. BearWise encourages residents, businesses and entire communities to take actions to keep bears wild and people safe.

Securing attractants, such as garbage and bird feeders, is the most effective and long-term solution to preventing and resolving human-bear conflicts. As such, some states have adopted formal BearWise Community Recognition programs to encourage broad participation in reducing bear attractants. Communities in North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida are making the commitment to be BearWise, which is having a positive impact on bear conservation efforts.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was working with communities even before the formalized BearWise Community Recognition program was in place. There can be barriers to recognition, including income disparities, lack of an existing unifying structure (e.g., homeowner’s association) and residents’ varying willingness to change behavior and their perceptions of black bears. Making the BearWise Community Recognition program more accessible to a wide variety of communities is a priority of the program.

It’s important that residents, communities and businesses across the southeast realize the realities of human-bear interactions and proactively work to prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. Prevention with programs like BearWise benefits people and bears in the long run.

To learn more about becoming a BearWise community, visit BearWise.org.