Wandering bear Georgia nuisance

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- A Florida black bear meandering through Southeast Georgia is headed for trouble unless it settles down away from people, state wildlife authorities said.


The bear was captured Aug. 1 when it sought refuge in the garage of a Sugarmill Plantation home in St. Marys after an afternoon of ambling through the neighborhood.

Relocated to a remote area, the 200-pound male bear was seen Thursday on private property in Wayne County, said Ed Van Otteren, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician.

Van Otteren had hoped he'd seen the last of the bear when he and two DNR colleagues captured it in the garage.

"This was his third strike. He's probably not going to get another get-out-of-jail-free pass. He's been too habituated to people," Van Otteren said.

The bear's misadventures during its two-state trek, wildlife authorities said, demonstrates how people and wildlife are sharing the same neighborhoods more frequently.

"As the population increases, there is less and less natural habitat. That means there is going to be more and more interaction between humans and wildlife, said DNR Capt. Stephen Adams, who has relocated about 20 bears and other wildlife statewide.

Georgia has about 2,200 black bears. Typically shy, most live in rural areas but they are becoming more common in urban areas, Adams said.

So far this bear has been affable and hasn't hurt anyone although it knocked down a fence while being chased in St. Marys, police said.

Wildlife officials are worried that could change because the bear seems comfortable around people and homes. It could become aggressive if it starts eating garbage, pet food or otherwise associates people with food. If it wanders onto a highway or busy street, it could cause a traffic accident, they said.

"The best thing that could happen is if he goes into the woods and stays there," Van Otteren said.

Peaceful capture

The bear was lying down in the cluttered garage when the DNR personnel arrived. It looked at them placidly as Van Otteren shot it with a tranquilizer dart from about 10 feet away.

"He was not aggressive to us ... When I darted him, he looked at his rump where the dart was stuck," Van Otteren said.

Giving an "Oh, no, not again" look, the bear sat down and went to sleep, Van Otteren said.

When it was released later, the 3-year-old bear loitered around their trucks for a while before finally disappearing into the brush.

Florida wildlife biologists had taken the bear on two similar trips after attaching ear tags identifying it as SO11.

"He's quite the wanderer," said Karen Parker, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We think he's looking for a home range but keeps getting chased off by other bears. It's possible that he likes to roam or may be looking for a mate," she said.

Originally captured in Broward County, the bear was relocated by biologists in May to Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County. They trapped it for a second time on June 24 after it strolled through a Palm Beach County neighborhood. At that time, biologists released it in the Osceola Wildlife Management Area which spans Baker and Columbia counties, Parker said.

It didn't stay long. In mid-July, the bear showed up in Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island and Tiger Island. The bear then swam across the St. Marys River into Georgia on July 31 to the marsh at Point Peter Creek, Parker said.

The next day, startled Sugarmill Plantation residents saw it roaming their subdivision and called equally surprised police.

"This is the first time I can ever remember us having to deal with a bear," said Lt. Vicky Lauf, a St. Marys police officer for 16 years.

Urban wildlife

Bears get a lot of attention, but they aren't the only wildlife that city-dwellers are finding in their yards these days.

The DNR gets about a half-dozen calls a day from people in Southeast Georgia with wildlife complaints ranging from an animal sighting to problems such as damaged property, Van Otteren said. Most calls are about alligators, raccoons, deer, possum or occasionally wild hogs, he said.

Catherine Nesbitt had more than a few sleepless nights at her 200-year-old home in historic downtown St. Marys several months ago.

"I kept hearing bumping noises at night from under the floor," said Nesbitt, who assumed armadillos had gotten into the crawl space beneath the home.

It wasn't long, Nesbitt said, before she discovered a family much bigger and more destructive had taken up residence.

"It was wild hogs. The hogs would go out and roam the neighborhood, tearing up yards and then come home to my house to sleep it off," Nesbitt said.

After Nesbitt reported the animals to DNR rangers, a private trapper removed a boar, sow and three young pigs.

Although she had a river otter in the yard before, Nesbitt said she never would have expected wild hogs.

"I'm not on the marsh. If it was a new development, I could understand it because it would have been their territory, but I'm in the middle of the city," she said. "I guess we're all learning to live together."

Uncertain future

If caught again in a populated area, bear SO11 might be humanely euthanized depending on the circumstances. Authorities said they may have no other choice.

"We hate having to put them down, but it becomes an issue of public safety," Parker said.

A lot of zoos and wildlife centers that already have bears may not take it, she said.

The best thing people can do for the bear or other wild animals, Adams said, is "leave it alone, enjoy seeing it from a distance and above all else, don't feed it."

The bear's fate, however, depends on what it does in the future, Adams said.

"How this all ends for him, is up to him. He needs to stay away from people," he said.

teresa.stepzinski@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405



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