The black bear was first spotted in Hernando County. Then near a recreation center in Clearwater. When he was seen in Philippe Park in Safety Harbor earlier this week, authorities closed the park for two and a half days.
Authorities didn’t try to trap or relocate the bear, but were content to let it amble out of the area and eventually settle in a more bear-friendly environment. The last reported sightings of the bear were on Thursday, several miles away from the park.
All of which raises the question: How do officials handle a bear moving into a populated area and what is the rationale for handling it that way?
The bear’s travels over the last week were nothing to worry about, bear experts say. In general, black bears pass through urban areas without incident — and eventually find their way back to the woods.
All wildlife officials usually do is monitor their movement.
“Overall I very rarely worry about anything serious happening,” said Mike Orlando, assistant bear program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “We don’t want people to panic.”
The bear’s presence this week sparked a blend of excitement and apprehension in residential areas and on social media, where someone launched a a Twitter account called Safety Harbor Bear.
The bear wasn’t the first to cause a stir in the Tampa Bay area. Over the past two years, Hillsborough County has had six bear calls to fish and wildlife, while Pasco had nine. Sightings in densely populated Pinellas County are less common.
Bears can travel up to10 miles in a night, Orlando said, making trapping the bear not feasible. If a bear lingers in one area for a few days, officials may set a trap and try to relocate the animal.
“We rely quite heavily on input from residents and local police,” Orlando said. They want to ensure the animal heads away from densely populated urban areas and toward a more bear-friendly environment.
Euthanasia isn’t an option unless the bear became a public safety threat — for example, chasing or harming a human, or breaking into a home. Even killing livestock doesn’t count as a public safety threat, Orlando said, but rather a property issue.
In more rural areas with a known bear population, fish and wildlife would not generally relocate the animal, but would ask residents to secure their garbage and take precautions.
“It’s a balancing act,” Orlando said.
In 2015, Florida allowed people to hunt black bears for the first time in more than two decades. However, hunting has not been allowed since, and Gov. Ron DeSantis increased the minimum fine for bear poaching last summer.
If you see a black bear, experts say you should walk backward slowly and firmly while leaving an escape route for the animal and avoiding eye contact, the commission advises. Speak calmly to the bear. If it seems irritated, stop and stay in one place. Do not run, play dead, climb a tree, make sudden movements or approach or try to feed the bear.
In 2020, the Southwest office of the fish and wildlife commission office, which covers 12 counties from Hernando County south to Lee County, received 500 calls reporting bears, up from 353 calls in the previous year. With humans developing more areas, bear sightings are likely to go up and it’s important to set aside areas for conservation, said Deby Cassill, a University of South Florida biology professor.
Generally, bears don’t cause much trouble with humans, Cassill said. Black bears’ primary sense is smell — their noses are seven times stronger than bloodhounds, Cassill said. With the soaps, laundry detergents and deodorants humans use, it’s not hard for bears to sniff us out.
“They’re not killers,” she said. “They’re just shy, conflict avoiders.”