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First black bear sighting reported at Sanibel refuge

July 14, 2011

When Tara Wertz, lead biologist at the J.N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, arrived at her desk last Thursday morning, she had no idea that her day was about to take an unusual turn.

"One of our interns, Joe Stack, retrieves all of the memory chips from the remote cameras we have installed across the refuge, which we check every week," said Wertz. "Usually we're looking for bobcats."

But what Stack discovered definitely wasn't a bobcat.

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On June 27, at 5:30 a.m., a motion-activated camera installed at the Bailey Tract captured this image of a Florida black bear.

"He called over to me, 'Tara, I think you ought to look at this!'" Wertz recalled.

What the motion-activated, infrared camera captured - at 5:34 a.m. on June 27 - was two images of a young Florida black bear, approximately a year and a half old and weighing between 40 and 60 pounds. This bear was photographed at the Bailey Tract, a 100-acre freshwater satellite parcel of the refuge.

"It was a big shock," said Wertz. "At first, we thought somebody was messing with us by putting an archery target in front of the lens."

However, the bear sighting was eventually verified by refuge staff members.

According to Wertz, the young bear might have wandered over to Sanibel from another area. She suspects the animal may have come through Cape Coral, arriving on the island by swimming across Matlacha Pass or via Pine Island Sound.

"This time of year, a lot of young bears - especially males - are just beginning to move away from their mothers, searching for good food sources," she said. "They are excellent runners and swimmers."

On Friday, the City of Sanibel posted an e-mail alert to citizens which stated that the bear poses no immediate threat, but residents and visitors should take precautionary measures to keep all food and garbage secured and stored inside.

"Bears are very persistent in their search for food," said Wertz, who stated that she couldn't find any previous confirmed sightings of bears on the refuge in previous years.

Black bears are native to Florida and are protected under state and federal laws. Dwindling populations in Florida has caused this sub-species to be listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to approach or harass this animal.

Young male bears tend to disperse long distances from their natal areas while young females tend to stay close to their mother's home ranges. Bears are most active at night and are opportunistic feeders, eating almost anything, including grass, insects, small mammals and carrion (dead things).

"All he's doing is trying to find his spot in the world," added Wertz. "Unfortunately, he's in a place that really isn't great for bears."

Residents should report any bear sightings to Tara Wertz at 472-1100 ext. 231.



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