TAMPA — Campus police spotted him first, lurking around the University of South Florida dorms near midnight.
He was a big guy, 275 pounds. Patrol cars from Tampa and Temple Terrace got the alert, and a sheriff's helicopter took to the sky. The fugitive tried hiding in an oak tree along Busch Boulevard, but a motorist called 911.
Early Tuesday, after a four-hour search, authorities finally caught up to the wild Florida black bear loose on the streets of Tampa.
"That bear's trying to figure out where he belongs in the world," said Mike Orlando, a bear coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Unfortunately, in his travel, he's ending up in some highly human populated areas."
The bear's capture comes just one week after Florida black bears fell off the state's threatened species list, where they had resided for more than 20 years. Bears in Florida now number in the thousands.
With the increase come more bear sightings throughout Florida, even in areas such as Tampa Bay, where reports are rare. In 2006, the commission received about 1,000 calls statewide. In 2010 and 2011, more than 4,000 calls were reported each year, Orlando said.
"We can have bears where we've never had bears before."
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On Tuesday morning, conservation officials headed to Busch Boulevard, where the bear had climbed into a tree near the entrance to Busch Gardens. Police shut down the roadway.
Steve DeLacure, a wildlife investigator, climbed a ladder belonging to Tampa Fire Rescue and pointed an air pistol at the bear. He fired two tranquilizer darts. One struck the bear's stomach, the other his chest, before he passed out on top of the branches.
He was pulled from the tree and landed with a soft thud on the grass below.
Wildlife officials said it's not the first time this bear, about 2 to 4 years old, has roamed populated areas. They know because of the tag on his ear and the tattoo on his lip.
He was spotted about a year ago at Sanibel Island in Fort Myers, having strayed from his stomping grounds of Big Cypress National Preserve in southwest Florida.
"This bear had been avoiding capture for about a year," said Gary Morse, a wildlife commission spokesman. "He started looking for love in all the wrong places on the south of the island, where most people live."
On June 20, he was caught at Sanibel, and his wandering ways earned him a one-way ticket north to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the Hernando-Citrus county line, where there are plenty of bears.
But he didn't stay long.
The Tampa stop was part of a trek south.
On Friday, wildlife officials heard about a bear near Land O'Lakes. On Monday, another was seen between Trout Creek and Flatwoods Park, about 7 miles from the university area.
Orlando said it's likely people saw the USF bear at different steps of his journey.
"You might say they have a sense of adventure, but it's really genetics that forces them to head back home," Morse said.
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In 1974, when the bears were listed as threatened, 300 to 500 black bears were reportedly living in Florida. The wildlife commission now estimates there are more than 3,000, and the number will continue to rise.
Bears are commonly seen in cities like Orlando and Ocala because they are located near bear-inhabited areas.
The last sighting reported in the bay area was in Temple Terrace in 2003.
Bears encounter humans for two reasons, Orlando said. They may be attracted to an area where food is in reach. Or, they may cross cities as they get lost finding another home.
With growth in numbers come new challenges for the commission, which has organized a bear management plan. Among the goals: educating the public on what attracts bears to populated areas and lobbying for local officials to pass ordinances restricting food and waste left outside homes.
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On Tuesday morning after his capture, the bear napped, sedated inside a metal container latched onto the back of a pickup. His large chest rose and fell as he slowly breathed.
Biologists planned to take him to Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee, where he will have room to live and grow.
He is being relocated farther north to discourage him from heading south again.
"We're making human decisions for a bear," Orlando said. "The bear might not completely agree with all our decisions."
Staff writer Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713 or [email protected]