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Bear sightings tend to rise during summer months

By Staff | Jul 18, 2009

When most people consider the word neighbor, they undoubtedly think of the type who might lend you their weed wacker, or engage in conversation at the mailbox. Perhaps they’d watch after the house next door while the owners vacationed. In other words, human beings.
But those aren’t the kind of neighbors the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is concerned with.
During the summer months, the FWC warns, Southwest Floridians might find a 450-pound black bear ambling through their neighborhoods.
“Summer is a very active time for bear,” according to a press release from FWC officials. “They are searching for a variety of fruits and other seasonal foods that grow throughout their range.”
Summertime is also breeding season for Florida black bears, and juvenile bears are searching for new habitats, making it a very active time of year for the animals, officials said.
With these facts in mind, it isn’t surprising that Estero resident Nanci Burton spotted what appeared to be a younger black bear near her home in the Stoneybrook gated community. The sighting happened about a month and a half ago.
“I was really surprised but I thought it was great,” Burton said. “I know there’s a lot of wildlife out there and I know the construction is affecting their habitat.”
Burton said her home sits near a preserve, where she often spots deer and other wildlife. When the young bear passed within 20 feet or so of her home, she called the FWC.
“I was really concerned that some people with kids might try to harm it,” Burton said.
But FWC officials told her the bear would likely leave on its own.
“I wasn’t scared,” she said. “It didn’t seem like he was sniffing for food or anything like that, just ambling along. He was just on his way probably towards where there were less people.”
Burton said she wouldn’t be surprised if she saw another bear passing through. In fact: “I’m hoping I do.”
Del Bagwell, a Lehigh Acres woman, had a less tranquil experience Monday morning when a black bear barreled around the side of the business where she works, Country Cleaners.
According to FWC officials, Bagwell reacted correctly by raising her arms in the air and slowly backing away, giving the bear a clear escape route.
Bagwell couldn’t be reached by telephone.
Bagwell wasn’t injured in the encounter, but officials want to ensure residents are aware of the local black bear population so a run-in does not result in the death of either a person or a Florida black bear, of which there are only about 2,500-3,000 left in the state.

“The best solution is to leave the animal alone,” said FWC spokesperson Gary Morse. “They’re simply trying to move through these areas to find habitat that has the things they need and is not occupied by the maximum number of bears that habitat can support.”
Black bear habitats have become fragmented, like islands of acreage, though the creatures require continuous habitat of millions of acres, Morse said.
“As development competes with the bears for space, we are seeing an increase in the number of incidents between humans and bears, and we expect that trend to continue to rise,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for people to become educated about wildlife issues.”
Many of the bears spotted locally have relocated from the Big Cypress National Preserve to the southeast, where they are more prevalent, Morse said. The bears are more likely to be encountered east of the Caloosahatchee River because of the barrier it presents, but at least one or two spottings have happened in the Cape Coral area over the past several years.
Morse referred to Bagwell’s encounter as the correct method of dealing with a face-to-face encounter with a black bear, and warned against incorrect stereotypes.
“If you see a bear, like the young lady who came face to face with a bear, you back up slowly, you don’t make eye contact, you don’t yell or scream or panic, you give the bear an escape route,” Morse said. “(Playing dead) is a very bad piece of advice, because playing dead involves you laying on the ground, and that is a signal to most animals that you are submitting, that you are in a position of submissiveness and that you are vulnerable. Some of the biggest problems with people dealing with wildlife is that they try to deal with animals on a human thought process level. Animals in most cases act purely on instinct.”
Additionally, residents should consider bear-proof trash receptacles, which are mandatory in some Florida cities where the animal is prevalent, should not leave trash or pet food out overnight and should eliminate other feeding opportunities.
Bears are omnivores, mostly feeding on plant matter, but bears will snack on a variety of foods.
“There’s a great deal of truth to the fact they eat what people eat, and given the opportunity, they will,” he said. “Then they become Dumpster-divers. Trying to fix that problem is nearly impossible without euthanizing the animal.”
Morse said relocation efforts and behavioral training rarely work with bears who have been allowed to become a nuisance to humans.
Outside of urban development, bears also face a variety of natural challenges including fires, hurricanes, disease and inbreeding problems.
Though the species of bear has seen an increase in population over the past few decades, it remains threatened, officials report.
“Leave the bears alone, don’t go near them, don’t give them any reason to alter their natural behavior,” Morse said.
For more information on Florida black bears and other wildlife concerns, visit www.myfwc.com, or call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 to report any wildlife conflicts. You can also learn more about Florida’s wildlife by calling a regional FWC office. The Fort Myers office can be reached at 278-7412.