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Bear sightings go up; experts blame growing bear numbers

SEBRING - Last year, the state saw a "significant" increase in black bear nuisance calls in Highlands County and decided to canvass neighborhoods and educate residents on how to live with bears.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials handed out literature and put out fliers advising people on how to reduce bear visitations in their neighborhoods by securing garbage, birdseed, pet food and livestock, FWC spokesman Gary Morse said.

Florida black bears, which were once threatened in the wild but whose numbers have rebounded in the last 40 years, are shy animals that normally keep to themselves.

But they become conditioned to people and lose their fear of humans if they are consistently fed in human communities, creating a public safety hazard and a danger to themselves, Morse added.

That issue came to the forefront recently after an 81-year-old Sebring woman ended up in Highlands County Jail a second time Monday for violating a court order not to feed wild animals for a year, authorities said.

Mary Musselman remains in jail with no bond less than a month after a judge granted her pretrial release after she was accused of illegally feeding bears.

When FWC officials responded to Musselman's house after receiving their first complaint, she was feeding a bear in the yard, Morse said, and the animal, which was eventually euthanized, showed no fear of humans.

That bear was one of two FWC euthanized last year; the second one had to be put down because of a suspected gunshot wound.

There were a total of four bears captured in 2013, none in 2012 and two in 2011 , both of which were hit by cars. One died in transport, and one was euthanized due to the extent of its injuries, Morse said.

FWC biologist Chad Allison, who is responsible for responding to bear complaints in the area, said, "if bears do not have access to food in neighborhoods, they don't have a reason to visit."

The state has been emphasizing that in its public campaigns to reduce encounters between humans and bears.

"If we take a few precautions to prevent bears from getting into mischief, we can live with bears without conflicts," Allison added.

Black bear management has become "increasingly complex with contentious issues surrounding human-bear interactions such as garbage and other human food attractants, feeding, and hunting," the Florida Black Bear Management report, which was released in 2012, states.

Experts expect human-bear encounters to increase in "number and intensity" as both Florida's human and bear populations grow and expand.

That can be seen in the exponential increase in the number of bear calls the state has been receiving over the last few years.

In 2011, FWC received eight nuisance bear reports from Highlands County, Morse said. That went up to 32 in 2012, more than doubling to 78 in 2013.

The statewide trend mirrors Highlands County. The state took 5,159 bear calls in 2012 and 6,600 last year. The FWC database showed 87 bear calls for 1990, up to 1,134 in 2000, spiking to 4,196 in 2010.

In the 1970s, about 300 Florida bears were left in the state. Now, more than 3,000 bears are estimated to roam in about 20 percent of their "historic range."

Of the eight areas they inhabit - pockets of flatwoods, bayheads, hammock sand swamps - Highlands and Glades counties has one of the smaller subpopulations. A hundred to 175 bears are estimated to live in the two-county area but bears can roam large distances.

Older bears can also force juvenile bears to look for new territory, causing more sightings, even in places where they are not commonly known to live or roam, Morse said.

"Therefore, managing bears requires understanding the interaction of biological and social components. A plan is needed to systematically address those concerns so that Florida's citizens can live with and enjoy a healthy, sustainable bear population," the bear management report states.

Among the complaints the state received from Lake Wales Ridge residents were that bears are foraging in their trash, bird feeders and in areas where pet and livestock foods were left unsecured. FWC biologists also received reports of the animals taking chickens in the area.

FWC's Allison called some of these situations preventable.

Putting out trash cans on the morning of garbage pickup rather than the night before can discourage the "curious but still shy bear" from accessing the trash, the state advises.

"Another option includes using bear-resistant trash containers or dumpsters provided by some local waste service companies," the news release adds.

"If trash and other food sources are readily available in neighborhoods, bears will return again and again," the news release reiterates. "When this happens, bears can become dependent on these food sources and will begin to lose their natural fear of people. These bears cannot be relocated, because they will continue to seek out and find human-related food sources, which can result in a public safety risk. The FWC will attempt to catch and euthanize any bear that is considered a public safety risk."