Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bear sighted on Amelia Island

By Michael Parnell, News-Leader

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday the bear was spotted walking on the bike path/sidewalk at Summer Beach on the Amelia Island Parkway. A quick turn around and the bear was in hiding again. Photos by Robert Fiege/News-Leader
A black bear has been sighted several times this week on the south end of Amelia Island. There is little threat to public safety, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Wednesday.

The bear has been sighted near Amelia City, the Waterwheel Gallery, Osprey Village and, about 8:48 a.m. Wednesday, at Burney Park south of American Beach.

"We put public safety first and the bear second," but "it has shown no signs of nuisance or aggression," said Rebecca Shelton, FWC wildlife assistance biologist.

"We have a very gentle, curious, tender black bear here."

Shelton reminded it is unlawful to shoot a bear. "Black bears are protected," she said.

Shelton also noted, "We've never had a documented human attack by a bear in the state of Florida."

State wildlife officials are monitoring the bear's movement and expecting it to leave the island soon. To report a sighting, call the wildlife alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

"It either crossed the bridge or swam here," Shelton said, and she expects it to swim or cross back. "They have a very strong homing instinct, and they will head for home."

This is the black bear's natural habitat, Shelton reminded. "It's a rare opportunity to see wildlife in their natural habitat."

According to FWC officials, the bear has been reported in the North Florida area for several weeks. They believe it is a bear relocated from Palm Beach County on June 24. He was released in Pinhook Swamp, in the northern section of Osceola Wildlife Management Area in Baker and Columbia counties, on June 25. He has been averaging between three and five miles a day.

This is mating season and Florida black bears are more active, looking for mates. "In addition to looking for a mate, the bears are also searching for food sources within their home range," Shelton said.

"Problems arise when bears have access to food sources such as pet foods, garbage, barbecue grills, bird seed or livestock feed. Bears learn very quickly to associate people with food," Shelton said. "Black bears normally are too shy to risk contact with humans, but their strong food drive can overwhelm these instincts."

Residents can help this bear "move on" so it does not become a problem. Properly storing or securing garbage and other attractants is a proven method of discouraging bears. Birdfeeders and grills should be stored in a secure place, such as a garage or a sturdy shed. Garbage should be placed outside on morning of pickup rather than the night before.

"Another way people can help is to feed pets indoors or bring in dishes after feeding," Shelton said. "Keep barbecue grills clean, and store them in a secure place. Picking ripe fruit from trees and picking up fallen fruit removes another food source."

Relocating the bear is not a good option, because there are few places to relocate bears where they will not encounter people.

"Many people wonder why we 'simply' don't move the bear to another area," Shelton said. "The problem with that is bears have a rather strong homing instinct, and moving bears exposes them to increased potential for vehicle collisions and often puts them in another bear's home range."

Another important reason for not relocating bears is that it requires chemically immobilizing the animal.

"This subjects the bear to additional stress with no guarantees of how it will react around people before it goes to sleep or how it will handle the administered drug," Shelton said.

If residents see a black bear, they should remain calm. "Don't run away. Walk calmly toward a building or vehicle and get inside," Shelton said. "If you have children or pets, bring them inside, too. You also can encourage the bear to leave. Bang pots and pans, or blow an air horn or whistle. The more stressful a bear's encounter with you, the less likely it is to come back."

If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. Remove people and dogs from the area. The bear usually will come down and leave after dark when it feels safe.

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