Tracking Florida black bears
See how conservation decisions across central Florida are being influenced.
Protecting the Florida black bear
View exceptional videography and photos from Carlton Ward, Jr. shows you why this project matters.
"Bears embody the idea of wild places, and it's exciting to work within the local community to protect their landscape."
Tricia Martin, the Conservancy's Peninsular Florida program director
Story by Judy Althaus, Photography by Carlton Ward Jr.
For more than 1 million years, Florida black bears have ambled through pristine forests that seemed to stretch forever. But today, these bears hear the drum roll of advancing civilization. You can help us protect native species.
The threat is real. Bear territory is now fragmented and crisscrossed with new roads due to Florida’s rapid development.
So The Nature Conservancy and its partners are using a fresh approach to decide which lands to protect — and the bears themselves are quite literally being collared for the job. Their travel is being tracked by collars that send text messages — all to help pinpoint important wildlife corridors through two critical Florida locations.
Big Bears Seeking Large, Connected Landscapes
Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Florida black bears (Ursus americanus floridanus) remain in eight isolated habitats throughout the state.
But black bears require large, intact and connected landscapes to survive. Adult males may wander over as much as 120 square miles in search of food — mostly saw palmetto berries, acorns and insects — and a mate. And without appropriate wildlife corridors, Florida’s black bears will become genetically isolated and may go locally extinct.
It's not just the fate of the bears that's at stake. Protected habitat for the black bear will help protect other threatened native species and allow wildlife migration in the face of potential climate change.
And humans benefit, as well: Connected forests are also important for keeping intact freshwater systems for local residents and providing natural protection from flooding, erosion and storms.
Doughnuts and High-Tech Telemetry Science
University of Kentucky research scientists working from Archbold Biological Station at the south end of the Lake Wales Ridge are carefully studying the Highland County region’s small and vulnerable population of about 150 bears. The Conservancy has helped protect this ancient sand dune in south-central Florida where conservationists share natural resources with ranching and agriculture, since the early 70s.
Researchers trap bears in a way many humans understand: with doughnuts. Over the last five years, many bears have been tranquilized and processed, and about 60 were selected to be collared. Today, about a dozen bears wear tracking collars that continue to send their coordinates to scientists.
The latest GPS/GSM collars are individually programmed to report in through cell phone technology as often as every 15 minutes when bears are active, or once daily during hibernation season. GSM reports track the bears very close to “real time,” allowing the bears to tell scientists how wide a corridor needs to be and what lands they may be willing to use. For example, researchers now know that bears will occasionally cross open pasture or citrus lands if necessary.
A Project That Intrigues Large Landowners
The Conservancy is using this and other data to aid and encourage policy-makers to make effective land use decisions that benefit people and wildlife. The project intrigues local ranchers. Many are large landowners, deeply interested in natural history and conservation. And that’s a good thing — their lands provide habitat for about 80 percent of the region’s bears.
"This project has really brought people together in Highlands County," says Tricia Martin, the Conservancy’s Peninsular Florida program director. "Bears embody the idea of wild places, and it's exciting to work within the local community to protect their landscape."
Avoiding Highway 'Hot Spots'
A second, Conservancy-funded study explored potential bear corridors in north-central Florida. The huge Ocala National Forest is connected to protected lands in the Wekiva River Basin by a narrow, partly-populated 20-mile greenway edged by urban areas.
University of Florida scientists worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other partners to create a digital map, layering more than a decade of bear-tracking data with population information. “Highway hotspots” were also considered: an estimated four of every five of Florida’s deadly bear-vehicle collisions occur in this area, 130 in one year alone.
The bears’ needs were then mixed with a big dose of financial reality to identify three major wildlife corridor options. The Conservancy is negotiating for strategic parcels within the greenway on behalf of its government partners. One parcel was just protected!
It’s a challenge. The greenway’s State Road 44 already impinges on all three suggested options. Tens of millions of dollars have been committed to create a wildlife corridor, and — although more than half of 76,698 possible acres have been protected — critical gaps in the greenway remain.
But a dynamic group of partners from universities, agencies, the Conservancy and other nonprofit groups is banging the conservation drum.
A window of opportunity remains in Florida to create a network of wildlife corridors, but today’s economy requires very strategic planning. Could the bears lead us out of this quandary?
A Lasting Legacy
Florida’s bear tracking project came at a high price. University of Kentucky’s Dave Maehr, Highlands County project lead scientist, was killed along with pilot Mason Smoak in an airplane crash in 2008 while performing telemetry work.
Maehr’s colleagues are determined to complete this and other bear tracking projects to honor his legacy.
Maehr often said that the challenge was not to just write papers and go to conferences, but to put conservation action to work on the ground. The Conservancy — and Florida’s black bears — could not agree more.
Judy Althaus is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.