Bears remain potential hazard for runway

  • Published
  • By Eglin Air Force Base Natural Resources Management staff
  • 96th Test Wing

Florida black bears are growing in population and base wildlife managers need Eglin Air Force Base personnel’s help to keep them, as well as the mission, safe.

Recent bear sightings on and around the flightline and active runways has generated concern among Eglin’s Natural Resources Management branch, known as Jackson Guard. 

“We’ve seen a lot of bear activity near the airfield environment this summer,” said Jeremy Preston, Jackson Guard wildlife biologist. “In fact, three bears have already been trapped and relocated from the airfield’s wildlife safety buffer this summer. Most of the activity has been adjacent to the air traffic tower and near the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport, but we’ve seen them moving in urban settings near King Hanger and the McKinley Climatic lab as well.”

Bears are entering the airfield environment in their constant search for an easy meal. And the easiest, most rewarding, high calorie meal around, human garbage.

Although unpleasant to humans, the smell of garbage in a dumpster is very attractive to black bears. As bears investigate the smells, the unsecured dumpsters are a reward for the animal because of the high calorie food items. Bears begin to positively associate dumpsters with food rewards and alter their behavior to try to exploit the resource.

“The best way to reduce bear activity long term in a developed area is to keep them from being rewarded when they investigate garbage smells,” said Preston. “Bears will always be attracted to smelly garbage, but we want them to move on after they find they can’t get access to any edible food items.”

To reduce garbage access to bears, base officials began to replace older dumpsters with newer, wildlife-proof dumpsters near the flightline. But there’s a catch, they only function as a deterrent if they remain latched. 

“As long as they keep getting rewarded with calories, bears will continue to utilize a dumpster until their access is precluded,” said Preston. “Personnel commitment to keeping trash secure starts to lag as bear presence decreases.”

The new dumpster design keeps bears out when the doors are properly secured by personnel.

“We need the base populace to put latches back in place every time they open and close the dumpster doors,” said Preston. “This will eliminate an easy food source for the bears and force them to find food elsewhere.”

No matter how much securing hardware is added, dumpsters deteriorate with time, which complicates the effort to keep bears away from garbage.

“This is an ongoing battle,” said Preston. “We’ve seen unsecured doors swing open and get damaged by garbage trucks as they are being dumped.”

The damage to the dumpster’s doors no longer precludes bear access. Personnel are recommended to use the sliding doors on the back of the dumpster to minimize this risk.

“If you notice a damaged or unsecured dumpster door, contact your facility manager immediately so that it can be addressed,” said Preston. “This is especially critical if your facility is adjacent to the airfield.”

While bears are no stranger to Eglin’s family housing areas, wandering onto the flightline raises aircraft safety issues, which leads to dire consequences for the base bear population.

“Bears are a serious concern with regards to flight safety, as well as public health and safety,” said Lucas Bridges, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist. “Bridges and one other U.S.D.A. employee run Eglin’s Bird Air Strike Hazard program that manages wildlife around the airfield. Dumpsters are the primary attractant for bears around the airfield year-round.”

As a result of this threat, Jackson Guard and USDA biologists continue their effort to secure dumpsters across the base.

“The latches are proven to be very effective keeping the bears out of the trash, but we need everyone to use the latches properly,” said Preston. “We can trap and relocate bears to provide short-term threat reduction for the airfield, but the long-term answer will be limiting their access to trash. The bears are going to be here, we just need to minimize their presence around the airfield to the maximum extent possible.”

Jackson Guard has brochures available in their lobby to help make residents aware of the black bear population on Eglin AFB, which is estimated to be approximately 120 bears. The brochure is available for download at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

Some of the general tips on handling a bear encounter are:

Do not feed the bear.

Never approach the bear.

Make sure the bear has an escape route.

Do not run from the bear or make direct eye contact with it.  Back up slowly and remain standing upright.

Act passively. Do not appear threatening.

If a bear is a nuisance on Eglin AFB property, including family housing, contact security forces at 882-2502. Members who live in the surrounding communities, may contact the FWCC’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC.