The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office should do more to justify why it killed a young black bear recently in Royal Palm Beach.
Suggestion: Maybe say that the bear appeared to have a “shiny object” in its paw, or to refer to the bear as “Yogi the perp.”
Because if you read the incident report later filed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), it's clear that the sheriff's office's upper chain-of-command decision to kill the bear was neither shared by officers on the scene nor called for by the state’s bear experts who were consulted in real time and had concluded that the young bear was not a threat to people.
A wandering bear draws concern
On the morning of June 18, FWC officer Lonnie Brevik was on duty in Loxahatchee when the sheriff’s office requested assistance with a bear that had roamed into the Saratoga Lakes neighborhood in Royal Palm Beach.
There are believed to be more than 4,000 Florida black bears in the state. They are a protected species populating eight isolated communities throughout the state, and becoming increasingly vulnerable to human interaction as the state’s people habitats keep expanding.
Royal Palm Beach isn’t bear country, but males can roam for more than 100 miles, especially during mating season. And with an estimated population of about 1,000 bears living in the southern end of the peninsula, it’s rare but not unheard of for bears to find their way into western communities in Palm Beach County.
While driving to Royal Palm Beach, the wildlife officer contacted a department biologist, Sean McHugh. When Brevik arrived at the scene he was met by sheriff's deputies and another FWC officer, Jason Willems.
The sheriff’s office, with the use of a drone, had spotted the bear, which was identified as a juvenile male weighing about 200 pounds.
Brevik noted in his report that, on the advice of his department’s biologist, he and the other FWC officer approached the bear to see how it would behave and whether it would move away from the officers and allow itself to be “hazed” up a pine tree.
Bear stays in tree to avoid people
“Officer Willems and I approached the juvenile Florida black bear and easily hazed it into a tree by using our voices to yell and walking toward the bear,” Brevik wrote. “The juvenile Florida black bear appeared to be afraid of humans as it climbed up the tree to avoid us.”
Brevik then waited for instruction, as higher-ups in FWC’s chain of command were advised of the situation. These discussions included both Florida’s Bear Management Program Coordinator Dave Teleso and his assistant Mike Orlando.
They decided that the bear shouldn’t be tranquilized while in the tree due to the injuries it might sustain from the fall. That tranquilizing the bear would only be an option once the bear was on the ground.
There was also an issue getting a trapper with a tranquilizer gun to the scene on this Saturday morning. A captive wildlife investigator in the area said he had a tranquilizer gun, but needed to arrange for child care to be able to leave home.
Agencies disagree on bear's fate
The fate of the treed bear became the subject of a conference call that morning among “multiple bear biologists” in Tallahassee. And they ultimately decided that the best course of action was to just leave the bear alone.
If left alone, they felt, the bear would descend from the tree, avoid humans and find its way to an appropriate place to live.
Previk noted that the bear was near many suitable habitats, including a wooded tract a little more than a half-mile to the southwest; the Grassy Water Preserve, about a mile to the east; the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, about eight miles to the Northwest; and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, about nine miles to the Southwest.
The FWC notified the sheriff's office that the decision had been made to leave the bear alone and monitor its movements, giving it time to find a suitable habitat.
“I relayed the plan of action to the PBSO deputy on scene and he passed the information to his sergeant by phone, giving his chain of command the plan of action and giving him my lieutenant’s contact information if they had any questions,” Previk wrote.
“I notified both PBSO deputies on scene that I would remain on scene and monitor the Florida black bear.”
But about a half-hour later, Previk said a deputy told them they were ordered to shoot and kill the bear as soon as it descended from the tree, where it had been for nearly four hours.
Previk wrote that he told the deputies not to shoot the bear, prompting the deputies, who didn’t want to shoot the bear, to tell that to their lieutenant.
“The PBSO lieutenant stated that he had approval from PBSO chain of command to kill the Florida black bear,” Previk wrote.
Previk told him that the sheriff’s office “was not authorized by FWC to kill the bear.”
As the bear started to descend the tree, “the two PBSO deputies directed to grab their issued shotguns were also yelling at the bear to avoid it from coming down,” Previk wrote.
“The Florida black bear appeared scared and did not want to be in that tree anymore,” Previk said.
It slowly slid down the tree trunk, and when it reached the ground, the deputies followed the orders to kill the bear with four shotgun blasts.
“The bear was moving to get away from the officers and deputies when it was shot and killed,” Previk wrote. “The bear did not show any signs of aggression when it exited the tree.”
“The juvenile black bear was never a safety hazard while I was on scene,” Previk wrote.
In some cases, the FWC decides during these bear encounters that the best course of action is to kill the bear to protect human life. For example, in January a woman walking her dog at night in DeBary in Volusia County startled an adult female bear with three cubs.
The mother bear pawed at the woman, bloodying her forehead, then briefly chased her down the street. When FWC officers arrived, the bear and her three yearling cubs were in a tree.
In that case, FWC officials decided to shoot and kill the adult mother bear, leaving three orphaned cubs, because of its potential threat to human life.
PBSO makes case for danger with bear
Even though FWC made it clear that the young bear killed in Royal Palm Beach by the sheriff’s office was no threat to people, the sheriff's office later emphasized the threat of the bear in a public statement that justified its shoot-to-kill decision.
The sheriff's office statement characterized the bear as a danger to the people in the community, giving it an extra hundred pounds, and calling it “large” instead of “juvenile.”
“The bear had NO place to roam safely!” the statement emphasized. “Fearing the bear would roam into the residential communities and/or impede traffic flow on the adjacent roadways PBSO was faced with making the decision to discharge their shotguns striking and killing the bear.”
The sheriff's office explanation also sought to make the FWC a partner, rather than critic, of its decision-making. The sheriff’s office said the decision to shoot the bear had been made because the wildlife service had failed to find a trapper with a tranquilizer gun before the bear descended from the tree. And that FWC had agreed that the sheriff's office should shoot the bear for “public safety.”
All contradicted by the FWC’s later published report.
The sheriff's office explanation also highlighted its public safety rationale. It noted that before the bear climbed up that tree, a Saratoga Lakes mother with three young children saw the bear very near to the back of her home.
“After hearing her dog bark she noticed a black bear inside her covered back-porch, approximately five feet from her back slider, an area where her kids normally play,” the sheriff's report said. “The bear looked in her direction which placed her in fear for her and her family’s life.”
Now that it’s clear the state wildlife service isn’t buying the bear-menace angle, it just may be necessary for the sheriff's office to take things to the next level.
Tweak the narrative to have the descended bear lunging at the officers. not trying to run away when it was shot. Classify the deputies as crime victims under Marsy's Law.
And notify the IT department that the scene photographs may require the photo-shopping of a handgun in the bear's dead paw.
Frank Cerabino is a columnist at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach him at email@example.com. Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: PBSO ignores FWC in bear shooting in Royal Palm Beach