CHASSAHOWITZKA — He started Tuesday as just another black bear, pawing at bird feeders and tipping over trash cans in a rural neighborhood not far south of the Hernando/Citrus border.
By lunchtime Wednesday, he was Bear No. 496 — a 200-pounder tagged, tattooed and one tooth lighter.
Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission captured the bear Tuesday night and had him back in the woods by Wednesday afternoon.
Officials set the trap last week after residents on Retriever Road reported seeing the animal in their yards on several occasions. The neighborhood of ranch homes on limerock roads is west of U.S. 19 and just steps from the eastern border of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, home to a small population of bears.
Biologists checked the trap — a steel culvert pipe with a sliding door — every four hours. About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, they found that the bacon and birdseed bait had worked.
They left the bear in the tube overnight.
"Adverse conditioning," said Lee Taylor, a wildlife commission biologist. "To relate the point that we want him to stay out of our back yards."
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Dodi Rizzo didn't believe her husband, Manuel, last year when he said he saw a bear not far from their home on Retriever Road.
Then last week, they heard about a bear lumbering around in their neighbors' yards.
The Rizzos have a daughter getting ready to turn 1, and Dodi often loads up the stroller for morning and evening walks.
The bear sightings "kind of put a glitch in our routine," Dodi Rizzo said. "It got to the point where my husband was driving alongside us on the four wheeler."
They saw the trap set up in a neighbor's yard last week. By Wednesday morning they knew a bear had been captured.
"Very relieved," Dodi said.
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Taylor, the biologist, keeps a supply of sedatives and darts for bears. Wednesday morning, he grabbed a pole with a hypodermic on the end and jabbed the bear's hindquarters. It jumped, gave a low moan and was unconscious in minutes.
An exam of the bear's lip confirmed what the biologists had figured: No tattoo. This was not the same animal trapped in Land O'Lakes on July 17 and released in Chassahowitzka.
Wednesday, Taylor and a co-worker tattooed "496" on the bear's upper lip and attached a bright orange tag with the same number to its right ear.
They took vital statistics — 212 pounds, a shade under 5 feet long, with a chest girth of just over 3 feet. Approximate age: 2 years.
Then they took a small tooth to determine the bear's age.
As Taylor put scalpel to gum, the groggy bear pulled away. More sedative, Taylor said.
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The 34,000-acre Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area runs from northern Pasco county to Citrus County and is part of a larger bear corridor of 165,000 acres that runs to the state's Big Bend. At last count, that corridor was home to 13 to 20 bears, said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse.
Bear problems are infrequent, but this time of year "momma bear is kicking the teenagers out of the family unit," Morse said. "They wind up having to go and find territories elsewhere and in that process they wind up in places we wouldn't expect."
Because of development, "there's very little habitat left for them to expand to," he said.
Still, this is shaping up to be an unusual year, officials said.
There have been sightings near downtown Brooksville, Morse said. Then the Land O'Lakes bear, and now this one.
"They've been coming out and making themselves known," said Jennifer Roberts, a biologist with the commission stationed at the Chassahowitzka office. "Hopefully, its a good sign for the population."
It's also a sign that residents need to do a better job of minimizing attractants, said Chad Allison, area manager at the Chassahowitzka office.
Leave trash in the garage overnight and take it to the curb in the morning, Allison advised. If you have to have a bird feeder, bring it in at night. Keep greasy barbecue grills in the garage.
"This time of year, they're trying to find as many food sources as possible," Allison said. "The bears, the people, the development all need to coexist."
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About 1:30 p.m., the trap door slid up and Bear No. 496 bolted into a swampy part of the Chassahowitzka woods.
"He wasn't happy to be in the situation he was in and left very quickly," Morse said, "which is exactly what we want to see."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.