Black bears no longer a stranger to Manatee County?

jajones1@bradenton.comJanuary 31, 2014 

MANATEE -- Florida's growing black bear population may be beginning to spill over into Manatee County.

Three sightings were reported between State roads 64 and 70 in the Lakewood Ranch area in 2013, and bear markings on trees in the Parrish area were reported this month, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Manatee County has traditionally been off the beaten path for bears, nowhere close to their primary or secondary ranges several counties to the north, south and east.

There were no bear reports

in Manatee County between 2007-12, and state wildlife officials find these new reports interesting.

"Yes, we have had a few bear reports from the Bradenton area," Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Thursday.

Those reports were logged in July, August and November of 2013, and in January, Morse said.

A series of photos shot by a resident last July shows a black bear digging through garbage at a residence in the Lorraine Road/State Road 70 area.

The last time there were bear reports from Manatee County was in 2006 and 2005, with one report each year from the Myakka City area, Morse said.

It's possible only one bear is responsible for the recent reports.

No one is sounding an alarm about bears in the area, but where bears are reported, it is wise to secure garbage cans and not leave pet food outside -- or small pets.

"They are starting to move into areas of human habitation. When you have a bear in the area, those things need to be removed," Morse said.

JoAnn Rogers, 85 and a long-time Parrish resident, was surprised to hear a report of bear scratch marks on trees in the area.

"I've lived here all my life and I have never seen one. Maybe there were some here years ago," Rogers said.

Ben Jordan, former president of the Parrish Civic Association, said bear reports are news to him.

"I haven't heard anything about them," Jordan said. "We have a lot of wild hogs."

Myakka rancher Jim Strickland said he has never encountered bears in Manatee County, but years ago saw evidence of where they had been, including damaged bee hives.

"I am about bears like I am about panthers. I am a Floridian, and so are they. I would love to see these animals in the wild," Strickland said.

A growing bear population is a "great thing," and shows wildlife conservation efforts are succeeding, Strickland said.

But it can also be a balancing act, he said, referring to the alligator population that proliferated after being protected for many years.

Damen Hurd of Wildlife Inc. has received several calls about black bears in recent years.

"They are moving in. They are more successful now," Hurd said. "They will range closer to the coastline as they do better."

Florida black bears are usually smaller and more shy than their northern brethren, said Hurd, a wildlife rehabilitator.

Female bears average 125 to 250 pounds. Males are larger and can average 250 to 350 pounds, with the largest exceeding 600 pounds. They prefer a diet primarily of fruit, berries and nuts, but may also eat smaller animals.

"I don't see an issue with them being around Manatee County," Hurd said.

Anyone who spots a bear in the area should go online at myfwc.com/bearsightings to report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The reports help with bear conservation and management, improve knowledge of bear distribution in Florida and revise the FWC range map.

"The distribution of bears can be difficult to determine because they are solitary, wide-ranging and present in areas not readily accessible to bear researchers," according to the FWC website. The state is particularly interested in the presence of mother bears with cubs.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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