Seminole County, Florida, is getting serious about controlling bears — and the responsibility is falling on thousands of residents living west of Interstate 4 who could face daily fines if they don’t obey a set of new rules designed to keep the beasts out of their neighborhoods. These residents and business owners will be required to secure their trash, bring in their pet-food bowls, clean their greasy barbecue grills and hang their bird feeders to keep the bears away. If they don’t, they could be fined up to $100 a day, according to a new ordinance Seminole commissioners approved unanimously Tuesday. The new rules take effect in early February.
Seminole County is the first local government in Florida to impose financial penalties on people who either unwittingly or intentionally lure bears into residential neighborhoods. “We’re trying to reduce the number of human and bear conflicts and keep the public safe,” County Manager Nicole Guillet said.
In coming weeks, county officials will mail postcards, put up electronic-message boards at busy intersections, set up placards at the entrances of large neighborhoods and use the county’s reverse-911 system to let residents know about the new restrictions. Anyone caught violating the new ordinance within the first few weeks that it takes effect will likely receive only a warning, officials said. “In the beginning, we want to work with people,” Assistant County Manager Meloney Lung said.
Still, a long list of county employees — besides code-enforcement officers — will have the authority to spot violators and write citations. Those include animal-control officers, biologists and customer-service representatives. County officials say the ordinance is aimed at reducing the number of dangerous interactions between humans and bears in Seminole neighborhoods west of I-4, an area described by wildlife experts as the state’s “epicenter of human-bear conflict.”
In the past two years, bears have mauled three women in Seminole County neighborhoods west of I-4. Bears are drawn to neighborhoods by unsecured garbage cans, birdseed, pet food and dirty barbecue grills with grease drippings.
Commissioner Lee Constantine, who pushed unsuccessfully to use public money to buy bear-resistant trash cans for about 23,000 homes west of I-4, said he was satisfied with the ordinance. “We are the epicenter [of human bear conflicts],” he said. “And this is a major step.”
According to the ordinance:
- All trash in residential areas must be secured within a bear-resistant trash can or inside a garage, home or enclosed shed. Commercial properties, such as restaurants and grocery stores, are also required to place trash within a bear-resistant container.
- Residents without bear-resistant trash cans would have to wait until after 5 a.m. on trash-pickup days to haul their garbage containers to the curb. But residents with bear-resistant cans could put them out the night before.
- Bird feeders will have to be suspended on a cable or other device to prevent bears from reaching them.
- Fruit — with the exception of citrus — would have to be picked off of trees when it’s ripe, and fallen fruit would have to be “promptly removed from the ground.”
- Grease traps on barbecue grills will have to be emptied, and grills will have to be cleaned after each use.
- Pet food or food bowls will not be allowed outside overnight unless inside a secured, enclosed kennel.
- Trash, groceries, pet foods and soda cans would not be allowed inside vehicles overnight.
Only the nearly 24,000 residents living in the new bear-management area west of I-4 are required to follow the new rules, but people living in other areas of the county are encouraged to adopt similar practices as well.
But Steve DeMoor, a wildlife trapper and Seminole County resident, said securing trash is not the answer because bears are already accustomed to living in residential neighborhoods. “We have a well-established population of urban bears living among us,” he said. “The bears are here to stay.”
Chuck Ness, president of the Wekiva Homeowners Association, said the county’s new regulations do not appear to be a burden. “It should be very easy to comply with,” said Ness. “But you’ll likely still have people that will continue leaving their large trash cans outside in front of their garage doors.”
Bears are a common sight in Wekiva, a neighborhood of about 2,600 homes just south of Wekiwa Springs State Park. And Ness has had bears raid a garage refrigerator. Ness said he may secure his garbage cans with clamps and bolts that can be purchased at a hardware store, rather than purchasing a bear-resistant can. That would be allowed under the county’s new ordinance.
In fact, Seminole County plans to post on its website instructions from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showing how someone can modify a regular trash can to make it bear-resistant by using hasps, screws and carabiners. But county officials said residents should contact their waste-service provider to make sure workers are able to unclip the top and empty the can.
Jack Wilburn, owner of the Ace Hardware Store on State Road 46 just west of I-4 in Sanford, said customers have asked about bear-resistant trash cans in recent months after learning about Seminole County’s plans to enact regulations. “We have them, and they work great,” he said. But the cans are not cheap, with a price tag around $200 apiece, he said. Customers have also asked about purchasing and installing the hardware on their regular trash cans.
Last year, Boulder, Colo., passed a “bear protection” ordinance that requires all trash and compost within a specific area of the city to be secured until a waste-hauling company picks it up. Residents can lease, rent to own, or purchase a bear-resistant trash can from the city. Violators face fines of $250 for the first offense and up to $1,000 for repeated violations. The city has handed out nearly 300 citations since September. Patrick von Keyserling, a Boulder city spokesman, said bears will commonly roam into the city from the mountains seeking food, especially before the winter months as the animals try to consume tens of thousands of calories before hibernating.
Heathrow, a Seminole County gated community made up of nearly 2,100 homes in 30 neighborhoods, passed rules similar to the county ordinance a year ago after a surge in human and bear encounters. A woman was attacked by a bear in Heathrow last year. Blaine Darrah, a board member of the Heathrow master community association, said the rules are an effort to encourage the bears back to their natural habitat. “Most people here are scared to death of bears,” he said.
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