Traveling bear’s road takes a turn in Tampa

Two tranquilizing darts pricked the black bear in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday.

Fifteen minutes later, the 2 1/2-year-old, 270-pound bruin tumbled from the tree. The bear “fell nicely into a hedge” next to a retaining wall along the edge of Busch Gardens in a densely populated part of the city.

For the bear, the theme park provided the latest venue in a widely traveled, well-documented life. He had been sought, off and on, by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers for a year, a sort of ursine John Dillinger.

“He’s a relatively famous bear,” said commission spokesman Gary Morse. “This is a bear that we started attempting to trap almost a year ago on Sanibel Island. It was an off-and-on process. He is one of these bears that are trap-shy.”

The bear probably started out as part of a healthy Florida black bear population in Southwest Florida and somehow swam to Sanibel Island, where he took up residence in the Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of the island. He seemed at home there, and never bothered the humans or their garbage cans, Morse said.

“He really wasn’t causing a problem,” he said. “There was no human contact. He avoided people and that’s a good sign. He didn’t mess around in trash cans and that’s the kind of bear that makes them good candidates for relocation.”

In July 2011, the bear got into some beehives, searching out honey, though he still wasn’t considered a nuisance. But wildlife officers began to think about trapping him and moving him to wilder regions, Morse said, “for the safety of the bear.”

Catching him was easier said than done, Morse said. The bear avoided traps and humans even though he began popping up more and more this spring around the southern part of the resort island, where condominiums and cottages crowd the beach and tourists and island residents clog the streets.

“They were getting a little nervous,” Morse said of the humans on Sanibel.

On June 20, a state biologist darted the bear on Sanibel and released him in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Tampa near the Citrus/Hernando county line. Morse said it was hoped the bear “would travel north and become part of that bear population in the area through the Big Bend.”

That was the human plan, anyway.

The bear’s plan was exactly the opposite.

“Well, he decided to travel south,” Morse said. “We got wind of that last week, when he was reportedly seen in Spring Hill.”

State biologists began mapping out some suspected routes. Bears generally travel along natural corridors, and biologists figured this one would eventually follow the Hillsborough River. “And that ends at USF,” Morse said.

“We got the call this morning that the bear was on the USF campus,” he said, “and we were prepared.”

Chad Allison, a district wildlife biologist with the commission, said he got the call at 2:15 a.m. Tuesday about a bear roaming the grounds of the University of South Florida.

The search was on and even included infrared and heat-detecting scopes on helicopters, but “we didn’t have any luck,” Allison said. “Then we started getting calls that he was spotted along McKinley Drive that runs along the east side of Busch Gardens.”

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