In a place known for citrus groves and golf courses, a group of dedicated researchers and ranchers is drawing a road map to success for one of the state's biggest mammals.
Smack-dab in the middle of the triangle formed by Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, Highlands County seems to travelers on U.S. 27 like so much of the rest of central Florida. Orange groves stretch for miles, and residential developments with names like Sylvan Shores and Sun 'n Lake promise waterfront lots and year-round golf.
But there's another world out there, beyond the malls and citrus groves. Highlands County's mosaic of woods, scrub, and wetlands hosts a notably diverse range of wildlife, thriving not just in parks and preserves but on private land, especially cattle ranches that sprawl over thousands of acres. Here, a seemingly incongruous partnership of environmentalists and ranchers protects some of the best of wild Florida, including the threatened Florida scrub-jay, rare endemic plants, and an isolated black bear population. What happens in Highlands County over the next few years could have a pivotal impact on one of the most ambitious conservation proposals in the state's history.
Just before sunrise on a cloudless December morning, biologist Joe Guthrie fires a tranquilizer dart into the flank of a 275-pound male black bear standing just 10 yards away, its dark coat shining in the sun. Guthrie watches in disbelief as the aluminum cylinder bounces off the bear and falls to the ground.
A few minutes later he and four other members of a University of Kentucky research team gather on a sandy road, where big paw prints lead into an open woodland of slash pine and saw palmetto. In the distance, sandhill cranes bugle and red-shouldered hawks scream. Guthrie's colleague, Wade Ulrey, holds up the dart, its needle tip bent and blunted. "I think we've had a critical dart failure," he says. "This thing must have hit solid bone."
The question on everyone's mind: How much of the sedative ended up in the bear? In a worst-case scenario, the animal could wander into one of the swamps in these woods, collapse unconscious in the water, and drown. Normally a transmitter in the dart would help locate the bear, but this dart, of course, is in Ulrey's hand.
The odds of such a fatal occurrence are small, and an examination of the dart shows that little if any of the drug was injected. Just to be safe, though, team members fan out to search the area. Visibility is good among the pines, but an extensive swath of nearly impenetrable palmetto patches could provide cover for an army of bears.
The five men are part of a project begun by the late David Maehr (see "A Bear's Best Friend," below), a biologist who worked extensively in Florida before and after moving to a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1997. The team has radio-collared more than 50 Highlands County black bears over the past seven years, assembling data on the population's habitat, diet, birthrate, and movement patterns. This failed attempt at capture hardly affects the research--and the big male, easily recognizable by a white chest blaze, turns up healthy and active in the same spot a few days later.
Highlands County offers excellent conditions for black bears. Besides tracts of dense vegetation for cover, there's abundant food. Acorns are seasonally plentiful, as are wetland succulent plants such as pickerelweed and alligator flag. In addition, local bears occasionally gorge on palm hearts and saw palmetto fruits. Some biologists speculate that a steroidlike substance in palms helps Florida black bears gain their adult weight more quickly and reach sexual maturity faster than their counterparts elsewhere.
Yet the future of this population is far from assured. Even in this mostly rural area (fewer than 100,000 people in a county of little more than 1,000 square miles), the same development pressures that have transformed much of Florida are threatening the natural landscape, as politicians and landowners promote new highways and sprawling housing developments that encroach on bear habitat. "We know that bears can, when they're pushed to the limit, have a fairly high tolerance of people," says John Cox, the University of Kentucky biologist who heads the bear study. "The bigger question is, Can these lands sustain a population of sufficient size that can persist long-term into the future? These animals have the third-lowest genetic diversity of any black bear population in North America. That tells you a lot about how relatively isolated they are."
For years Florida conservationists have dreamed of creating a wildlife corridor that would link the Everglades-Big Cypress region with Ocala National Forest north of Orlando, and then continue northward to Okefenokee Swamp in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Connecting habitats could expand the range of the Florida panther, the critically endangered eastern form of mountain lion whose population in the state totals only about 120 individuals. And in Cox's view, bringing the southern portion of such a corridor into existence is the best way to save central Florida's black bears, thought to number fewer than 150.