Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Some relocated bears just won't stay put in the woods

Sandra Pedicini - Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

People are creatures of habit. So too, it appears, are bears.

In December, a couple of bears that were getting too close to their human neighbors in a Longwood subdivision called The Springs were captured and carted away to the Ocala National Forest. Researchers hoped the bears would return to the ways of the wild.

Instead, the bears have returned to other neighborhoods, where they're foraging through garbage and doggie bowls.

Sending bears back to the woods doesn't always work. The bears wander, and some take up residence in other neighborhoods. A few become such a nuisance that they must be relocated yet again, to wooded areas that are usually even farther away.

Last week, one such bear -- known as No. N37 -- was relocated to the Apalachicola National Forest in North Florida. In a neighborhood north of Altoona, the bear had wandered into someone's garage and dragged out a garbage can.

The bear had a "very nonchalant attitude," bear researcher Kim Annis said, noting that the man who lived in the home couldn't scare away the creature. "It was his attitude that got him captured and relocated again."

Bear N37 (N stands for nuisance) is one of five in Annis' study that have had to be relocated twice because they continued exhibiting problem behavior. Annis is tracking dozens of nuisance bears that have been trapped, fitted with electronic collars and relocated in the woods.

So far there are no plans to trap and relocate the second Springs bear. He has been spotted eating out of dog bowls. He was even spotted in the backyard of Dean Kelly, Putnam County sheriff, Annis said. But the bear hasn't stayed in any one place for very long.

Yet another bear -- this one relocated from Bonita Springs in southwest Florida -- paid a visit to Daytona Beach during Bike Week. Two dogs chased her up a tree near State Road A1A. She was captured and brought back to the Ocala National Forest, but now she is again heading east.

To be relocated, the bears' behavior must be considered particularly serious, such as if the bear resists efforts to drive it away.

As development encroaches on their habitat, bears have shown up more frequently in residential neighborhoods or commercial areas.

Last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received more than 1,300 reports of bears sighted in neighborhoods or found dead on the road in its 12-county northeast region. That's a record number since the agency started keeping track more than 15 years ago, said Susan Carroll-Douglas, a commission biologist.

"We're continually having more bears spreading out and more people encroaching on bear habitat," Carroll-Douglas said.

The northeast region, which she covers, includes Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties. In January, the regional office got 114 reports, an unusually high number for that month, and almost half of them came from Seminole. The number of bear sightings dropped considerably in February, with only 61 bears being reported in the region.

In December, the same month The Springs bears were captured and the month Annis stopped adding new bears to her tracking list, four other bears were captured and relocated from the Longwood area.

"All of these Longwood bears are fairly interesting," said Annis, a University of Florida graduate student who is working with the commission on her study. "They all do quite a bit of walking and all, except for one, have gotten into trouble again." Two of them have had to be relocated a second time.

Usually, the state advises people with bears in their neighborhood to take preventive measures, such as not leaving out garbage or pet food. But about 30 bears a year in Central Florida still must be trapped and relocated to wilderness areas because they are losing their fear of humans and could be a threat.

Bears have wandered for years throughout The Springs but on occasion they become so tame they meander up to windows and can't be scared off. Authorities say that behavior usually happens when people have been feeding the bears.

Wildlife officials have a saying: "A fed bear is a dead bear." Sometimes the bear's behavior becomes so aggressive it must be euthanized. That happened to one bear from Annis' study that tried to climb inside windows even after it was relocated.

Other bears from Annis' study have met unfortunate fates. One was killed and skinned in Eustis, authorities said. Two are missing. One may have simply lost his electronic collar. The second bear is presumed dead because "they found the collar tossed into a creek very suspiciously," Annis said.

She will continue tracking the bears through this year.

Right now, she said, "all I can definitively say is that they do not stay where you let them go."

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