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Put away the buffet: Bear population growing, roaming in Mississippi

Like Florida, Mississippi has a growing bear population. Florida is educating residents to be "bear wise," pointing out a bear sometimes finds more calories in a garbage can than it does through a day's foraging.
Like Florida, Mississippi has a growing bear population. Florida is educating residents to be "bear wise," pointing out a bear sometimes finds more calories in a garbage can than it does through a day's foraging.

Folks along Florida’s Western Panhandle are alarmed over a black bear that injured a man and his dog, but we’ve got plenty of bears right here on the Mississippi Coast, too.

A man in Gulf Breeze, Florida, let his dog out Saturday night only to have the dog encounter a bear in the front yard, a news release from the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission said. The bear swatted at the pooch’s owner when he approached. Both human and dog were treated for injuries that were not life-threatening.

FWCC has set out traps for the bear, public information coordinator Karen Parker told the Sun Herald. Bears have become so common along the Western Panhandle — with a 28 percent population increase since 2002 — that FWCC is now offering bear workshops and uses slogans such as “Live BearWise.”

Mississippi doesn’t have numbers, but resident bear expert Richard Rummel, whose actual title is black bear program leader at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, knows the population is growing here, too. He said South Mississippi is a favorite habitat.

In fact, a black bear was spotted in D’Iberville last spring.

Alabama’s bear population is drifting this way. “There’s not a fence along the state line,” Rummel said.

Rummel is unaware of a documented attack of a black bear on a human in Mississippi. He surmises it’s because Florida subdivisions are encroaching on bear territory, while the shy creatures have more room to roam in South Mississippi.

“Bears don't want to be around people,” Rummel said. “If you're in an area where bears are and you're going through the woods, they're going to hear you, see you, smell you long before you see them. They're going to be gone before you know there's a bear around.”

Still, Mississippians would be wise to heed all the advice Florida residents are getting in bear workshops. For starters, Rummel said, unsecured garbage cans and pet food should not be left outside. A bear can find more calories in a garbage can than it can scavenge on its own in a day, FWCC warns.

As Rummel said, “It’s like a buffet to them.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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