Warning: Bear activity on rise in Central Florida

Bear spotted by Ocala highway was just eating, FWC officials say

OCALA, Fla. - Florida wildlife officials issued a warning about bear activity after several excited motorists reported a bear sitting near a busy Ocala highway.  It turns out, however, that the bear was just eating.

PHOTOS:  Bear climbs tree near Ocala highway

The bear was recently spotted along Highway 19 in the Ocala National Forest, and when a biologist went to check it out, the animal was found stuffing acorns into its mouth, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.

The biologist feared the bear may be struck by a car, so she tried to chase it to a safer spot, but the animal instead ran up a nearby oak tree.

"We're beginning to get lots of calls from people in both rural and urban areas reporting what they think is a sick or hurt bear because it plops itself down for extended periods and casually eats grass, acorns, berries, insects – really any natural food nearby," said Susan Carroll-Douglas, wildlife assistance biologist for the FWC's Northeast Region.

In autumn, bears in Florida begin a natural process of putting on fat stores for the winter, eating anything that's convenient, officials said.

"It takes a lot of acorns, berries, grass, insects and leaves to make 25,000 calories a day," said Mike Orlando, assistant bear program coordinator for the FWC. "But bears aren't fussy, and they are very smart. It's much easier and tastier to consume that many calories by eating food like garbage, pet food, livestock food and birdseed that people leave readily available."

"If you live in most counties in Central Florida, you very likely live in bear country. You may see bears frequently, or not at all, but they are living nearby. During this time of year, even those who rarely or never see bears may find one in their yard or walking around the neighborhood munching on acorns and other natural foods," said Carroll-Douglas.

Wildlife officials said residents should know what to look for and what to do if they have seen or suspect bears are nearby. First, officials said, residents should look for signs of an unseen visit by a bear.

"Signs include garbage strewn all over the place, bird feeders ripped down and seed eaten, livestock or pet food raided, acorns disappearing, footprints that look oddly human-like, and large piles of fecal material, also called scat, filled with acorns, remnants of garbage, corn, and other foods," said Orlando.

If a bear is nearby, the FWC recommends making a lot of noise to disturb the animal and make it move on. Car horns, air horns, banging pots and pans, noisemakers and yelling can all be effective.

Officials said it's also imperative to get rid of or securely store any source of food that would keep it coming back for more.

"In other words, if you have garbage outside, lock it up; if you have bird feeders up, take them down; if you feed pets outside, pick up the food and dishes when they are finished," said Orlando.

"Allowing bears to eat and hang around can mean potential injury to humans and near certain death for bears," Carroll-Douglas said. "It's hard for us to make people understand the correlation between the food source they supply and the nuisance problems they ultimately experience."

It's everyone's responsibility to do the right thing to help ensure the future of the Florida black bear.

"We've had three or four incidents in the past couple of years in our area where bears have bitten or scratched humans. Every single case involved human-provided food, and in the situations where we were able to catch the bear, we had to kill it," Orlando said.

Anyone wanting more information about bears, can call the FWC's Northeast Regional Office in Ocala at 352-732-1225 or check out tips and methods online at MyFWC.com/Bear.

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