Central Florida's suburban sprawl bumps into resurgent bears

Mon Dec 9, 2013 12:20pm EST
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By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Guess who's coming to dinner? In the leafy far suburbs of Orlando, the uncomfortable answer increasingly is a Florida black bear.

Calls about bears, including reports of sick or injured ones, more than quadrupled in Florida over the past decade, according to statistics maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2012 alone, the commission received 6,159 calls - an average of 17 a day.

More than half of actual complaints come from central Florida, where urban sprawl has brought more people into former wilderness areas near or adjacent to the 600-square-mile (1,550-square-km) Ocala National Forest, fracturing bear habitat and plopping homes alongside long-established bear trails.

At the same time, the state bear population has rebounded to more than 3,000 from several hundred in the 1970s, thanks to measures to protect them from extinction, according to the state's fish and wildlife commission.

A bear attack on a Longwood, Florida, woman walking her dogs last Monday evening, though a rare occurrence, focused attention on both the perils and wonder of co-existing with wildlife.

Susan Chalfant, 54, told neighbors who found her bleeding profusely from the head that she did not see the bear that knocked her to the ground.

"They're in backyards here, on the main roads here, as well as deer. It's a wonderful sight to see just 10 to 15 miles from downtown Orlando," said Emil "Skip" Scipioni, community association manager for the Springs, a nearby subdivision.

Scipioni said all new residents at the Springs went through an orientation that includes education about living with black bears. The key to successful co-existence is to avoid feeding the animals, even inadvertently.   Continued...

Natasha, a Florida black bear, relaxes high atop a tree perch at the Jungle Adventures theme park in Christmas, Florida August 17, 2000. REUTERS