Practicing bear safety in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), is important for all wilderness backpackers and hikers. Florida Black Bear encounters in the Ocala National Forest, (ONF), have been on a steady rise. The ONF is located in Central Florida, and it has one of the largest Black Bear populations in the state.
This increased bear activity is not only occurring in the Ocala wilderness but also in rural cities surrounding Ocala. The increased activity is due to our encroachment into the Black Bears habitat.
Conservation efforts that began in the 1970’s are also contributing to these wilderness encounters. In 1970, the Black Bear count in Florida was around 300 bears. Today there are over 4000 Black Bears in the state.
Encountering a bear in the ONF can be very exciting and dangerous. Educating yourself on what to do during an encounter and how to properly store your food are very important for your safety. This article will discuss (5) topics on bear safety to make your stay in the ONF safer:
Alexander Springs Wilderness (Ocala National Forest)
Topics that will be discussed
- Florida Black Bear Background and Information.
- How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear.
- How to defend yourself from a Florida Black Bear if attacked.
- Basecamp Security in Ocala.
- How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala.
Florida Black Bear Background
The largest land mammal in Florida is the Black Bear. The Florida Black Bear range in size from 200 to 400 pounds with the largest recorded Florida Black Bear being over 740 pounds. The Florida Black Bear is considered a carnivore, (meat eater) but they are also classified as Omnivores, (meat and plant eater). Their diet is mostly plants and berries. They also consume and are not limited to , insects, rodents, wild hogs, and deer.
At night and in the early morning hours is when they forage for food. They have a very keen sense of smell that allows them to smell food up to a mile away. The Florida Black Bear semi hibernates during the winter months which means that they can stay active year round. They hibernate in dens which are located in heavy vegetation, palmetto thickets, pine straw, and leaves. Black Bears can climb trees and they can run up to speeds of 30 mph per hour so running from a Black Bear will not work.
How to deter and mitigate contact with a Florida Black Bear
When you are traveling in one of the (4) wilderness areas in the ONF noise is your friend when it comes to deterring a Black Bear. Most of the bears in Ocala will keep their distance from you if you are loud or making some type of noise. Now for some this may be counterproductive. I personally believe that using stealth and noise discipline is how I conduct operations in a wilderness area.
Sometimes there needs to be a tradeoff when practicing bear safety in Ocala. Being in a group and talking can be enough for a Black Bear to keep its distance from you. Below are some recommendations for you to follow as you travel along trails in the ONF.
Use noise to deter Black Bears
- Talking with others in your group.
- Attach gear such as Bear bells to your pack that will make noise as you walk.
- Have a whistle with you if you to make audible sounds on occasion.
- Have an electronic audible device with you if a curious Black Bear approaches you.
Audible Devices I carry into the ONF
Using noise will be the most effective way to lessen your chances of encountering a Florida Black Bear. The purpose of the noise is to scare of these Bears before you see them. If you do see a Black Bear leave it alone and do not approach it. Slowly leave the area calmly and reroute your path.
It is important to remember that you must stay vigilant while traveling through Ocala not just for Black Bear but all species of wildlife to include the Florida Panther, (a rare sighting) and Bobcats. Scan your area (360), front sides and back. Don’t forget to look up into trees as well. Florida Black Bears have the ability to climb trees and they may be watching you as you walk by.
How to Defend Yourself from a Florida Black Bear
When you venture into the ONF there are some gear items that you should have. These are the items I carry into Ocala to defend me from a bear if it decides to attack.
KNIFE: Always carry a knife. I use a fixed blade knife and your preference may vary on the type. Knives in an attack would be for close quarter combat if a Black Bear is on you. The neck and head area for a bear should be your strike areas.
HIKING POLES: A hiking pole can be used as a spear in a close quarter situation if you are attacked.
FIREARM: I carry a firearm with me on all of my wilderness adventures. A firearm in the hands of someone properly trained to use it can protect you with well-placed rounds at the vital areas of a bear. A firearm can also be a false sense of security if it is underpowered, (small caliber), not quickly deployed, (practice), or if shots are not placed on target. Practice firing and deploying the firearm you choose to carry. Also adhere to state and local laws pertaining to the carrying and use of any firearm.
BEAR SPRAY: Bear Spray is my first line of defense if a bear is charging at me. I know some will not agree, but statistically bear spray has been shown to be very effective in deterring a bear. Take time to practice deploying bear spray and have it readily available. I did an article on Bear Spray vs a Firearm where I go into detail on the pros and cons of bear, click on this link, Bear Spray vs. a Firearm to read that article.
Bear spray can be counterproductive in a close quarter situation. So, if you are in a tent and a Bear comes into your tent deploying Bear spray may incapacitate you. In situation like that I would use my firearm or a knife to defend myself.
IF YOU ARE ATTACKED:
Having the right gear with you is important if you are attacked and need to defend yourself. Not everyone will carry a firearm but at the least have Bear spray and a knife with you. If you are attacked by a Black Bear fight back and do not play dead. A Black Bear who encounters a victim that fights back is likely to retreat. Focus on the vital areas of the bear which would be the head and neck area.
If you kill or injure a bear get out of the area and report the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or local law enforcement.
Once you have found your basecamp location make sure that you are far enough off the main trail. I did an article on where to place your basecamp that you can review by clicking on this link, Where to place your Basecamp.
Once you have found an area scan the perimeter and make sure that there are no game trails around your basecamp. Game trails can bring in bears or animals a bear consumes.
Check the perimeter for bear dens or signs of Black Bears. These signs can be paw prints, and bear scat (feces). I use a perimeter trip wire alarm system that I set up around my basecamp. If you want to learn more about this trip wire alarm system click on this link, Perimeter trip wire alarm system.
I also use a thermal imager, (Flir TK Scout), which I have been using for over three years on all of my wilderness adventures. Stay vigilant at your basecamp.
Flir TK Scout and me preparing to set up my Tripwire perimeter alarm
How to Properly Store your Food in Ocala
Storing food in Ocala is very important and overlooked by many. In March of this year, (2019), a Florida Black Bear in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, (one of 4 Wilderness areas in Ocala) was going into basecamps and taking food out of tents.
This bear became acclimated to this behavior and it was posing a very serious threat to all backpackers. This habit started with backpackers who were not properly storing their food or feeding this bear which is illegal.
This bear began indulging on easy food that it was not eating in its habitat. Sadly, it was trapped and euthanized by FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission). The Juniper Prairie Wilderness was shut down for over a month until all bear activity subsided.
For some the thought of not storing your food has led no consequences and it’s only a matter of time that this will change. When you are in Ocala there are 2 ways to store your food if you are not vehicle camping which allows you to store your food in your vehicle.
Taken from an article in the Orlando Sentinel Newspaper
HANG YOUR FOOD:
Hanging your food in a tree is the most common way to store your food and personal hygiene products. I include personal hygiene items such as toothpaste and hand wipes because they give off a scent that will attract these Bears. Hanging your food in Ocala can be difficult due to the terrain and trees. In Ocala you have a lot of pine trees. Some of these pines are scrub pines that have many tightly spaced branches.
Trying to get a rope into these dense branches can be difficult. The rule of thumb is 10 feet high and 6 to 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree. These branches can also be small and brittle. It can be done, and I have used this method allot in Ocala. If you use this method mark your bag with some reflective tape so you can easily spot it at night if you need to get to it.
Bear bag with reflective tape and bags hung in the Glacier Peak Wilderness
A Bear cannister is easy to use and deploy. The problem with these cannisters is that they can be bulky and heavy. There are varying sizes you can purchase, and they can store not just food but other items you bring into a wilderness area. Some areas in Ocala may not have the necessary trees to support you hanging your food and this may be the only way to store your food. So, research the area where you plan on setting up your basecamp.
Both methods will work, and it comes down to your choice on how you will store your food. There is another method that I have not used and that has been recommended. That is using a Ursack bear resistant sack. This is a Kevlar bag that you put your food in and tie to a tree or a stationary object. It is bear resistant and they say very easy to deploy.
I can imagine that if a Bear gets to this sack that your food will be damaged/destroyed. Some National Parks and wilderness areas have not approved the use of this sack. Currently the Ocala National Forest requires food to be stored in (3) ways. First is an approved bear resistant container. Second, is a hard topped vehicle. Third is to hang your food. If you use the Ursack you will have to hang it.
Bear Cannister’s (BV 450 and 500) with reflective tape
Wilderness backpacking in the ONF offers a unique ecosystem different from many other wilderness areas you may have adventured in. Ocala is a mystic place especially in the evening hours. Part of being in the wilderness is to see and possibly have encounters with the wildlife. Some of the wildlife can be extremely dangerous and you need to research and understand their habitats and dispositions.
Bringing food into the ONF provides you the sustenance to explore this unique and beautiful ecosystem. It also allows wildlife like the Florida Black Bear a free meal if it is not properly stored. When you are in the ONF make sure you take time to properly store your food and have the necessary gear with you to protect yourself if you are attacked by a bear.
Bear Safety Video