Path of the Black Bear
Who is M34?
Meet the bear that inspired the Expeditions
When we caught him, M34 didn’t seem remarkable for anything other than for being a black bear making a living in south-central Florida. He was 2 ½ years old, weighing less than 200 lbs.
University of Kentucky’s Wade Ulrey and I trapped him in a patch of oak scrub in early October 2009, near the peak of the acorn harvest. The scrub draws bears during the fall, and in a good year they may work the food-rich patches for months, gorging on scrub oak acorns, hickory nuts and palmetto fruit.
We use fire lanes to search for fresh bear sign, so we knew a little about M34 before we caught him from following his tracks in the sand. We could not yet imagine how important that unassuming young male would become to us.
At the time of M34’s capture I was working as a research assistant in the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry, living at Archbold Biological Station near Lake Placid, Florida. I migrated to Florida in 2004 to work on the project under Dave Maehr, professor of conservation biology at UK.
After years spent tracking panthers and bears, Dave was an effective advocate for the importance of private land in conservation efforts. He penned an article in 1990 that suggested the use of conservation easements as tools to ensure that wildlife corridors would remain in place in south and central Florida.
Dave’s mentor at the University of Florida, Larry Harris, was the author of one of the defining books for the nascent conservation biology discipline; The Fragmented Forest was published in 1984. Dr. Harris was an expert on reserve design, having helped design parks and reserves in Africa and Texas. Dr. Harris devoted years thinking and writing about wildlife movement corridors, particularly their importance to wide ranging species in Florida, such as the black bear.
Dr. Harris mentored two other doctoral students whose work on wildlife movement and landscape conservation design inspired the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign. Reed Noss and Tom Hoctor have both published visions of a statewide conservation network, dating back to Noss’ work in the 1980s. Several decades of work on wildlife corridors enabled the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign.
To Be a Bear
To be a bear in south-central Florida is to be constantly moving in search of the most easily available food. Before they focus on the scrub they are in the pine flatwoods, eating saw palmetto berries, and before that they search out the best wild grapes and blackberries. After the scrub, they go to the oak hammocks to take advantage of the live oak acorn drop, which typically occurs later in the fall.
A year is a cycle of shifting food resources for a bear, and the bears follow that cycle, changing habitat to track the fruiting of its favorite foods. Similar tracking occurs in males during the breeding season. So while the land must provide the food hotspots and plentiful habitat, it also must allow for easy travel between the hotspots. These are some of the reasons we talk about corridors as important landscape features for wildlife conservation.
UK’s research was intended to study movements and find patterns that might explain how a tiny bear population keeps afloat in a landscape dominated by humans. Islands of forest – bayheads, flatwoods, and palm-oak hammocks – are scattered throughout the region.
The largest stands of forest exist on a handful of private ranches. Lowland forests buffer the streams, such as Fisheating Creek, which flows east into Lake Okeechobee. Between the forest patches is a mosaic of natural and semi-natural grasslands, much of which is utilized as pasture, cropland or citrus groves. A network of roads also laces through the landscape. Development is most intense along U.S. Highway 27, which runs along the sandy scrublands of the Lake Wales Ridge.
The rest of Florida’s black bear populations exist on large, contiguous blocks of public land, such as Ocala National Forest or in the Big Cypress region of south Florida. Like the Highlands/Glades bears, the seven different populations are mostly separate from one another due to past human persecution and habitat changes.
M34’s Amazing Journey
In order to understand the movement and behavior of our bears, we used GPS tracking collars. M34’s collar data show that he stayed close to his capture site during the first eight months. He stayed mostly within the boundaries of the dense, dark bayhead forest between Sebring and the Avon Park Air Force Range.Then in May 2010, the early stages of the breeding season, M34 made an abrupt exit from his traditional home range. He tracked northeast across the Air Force Range, bee-lining his way toward the Kissimmee River on the east boundary. With that first leap M34 began a journey that was fraught with danger for any bear.
What ensued was a dispersal route that would amaze even those of us who’d been tracking bears for years. By the end of his two-month trek, M34 would demonstrate astounding mobility and instinct for survival, all the while providing evidence of the landscape’s fragile connectedness.
After crossing the Kissimmee River, M34 made for the south side of Lake Marion and the Adams Ranch. He lingered there for a week before turning back to the southwest, using Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and then crossing the river again near the south end of the lake. He continued southwest until he came back to the Lake Wales Ridge and the town of Frostproof in Polk County. He passed near the town and finding nothing of interest, continued on his way, this time turning north and heading up the eastern edge of the Ridge.
For the next eight days he traveled, staying in the forest except when crossing roads and open areas under cover of darkness. On May 26th he crossed busy SR 60, 10 miles east of Lake Wales, and headed north to Catfish Creek Preserve State Park. From Catfish Creek he continued north into the Upper Lakes Basin Watershed conservation area, finally arriving at the outskirts of Disney at Celebration on June 1st.
At I-4 he hung up, waiting out the day in a tiny patch of woods next to the Celebration Hospital, which sits at the intersection of the 417 toll road and I-4. Once darkness came he re-crossed 417 and headed south down I-4. For the next week he wandered southwest, at several points approaching the bustling interstate as if to cross.
At last, near the 46-mile marker (Polk City) on June 7th, M34 turned back to the south. Again he leapt south, crossing through Catfish Creek, Lake Kissimmee State Park, through the Bombing Range, passing his old home range near Sebring and continuing toward the Kissimmee River, where he entered the riparian corridor of the river on the 16th.
From there he walked to the banks of Lake Okeechobee, swimming to the east bank and walking along the dike. For two days he walked the northwest shore of the great lake, before finding the mouth of Fisheating Creek in Glades County, on June 23rd. He then spent a week in the company of female bears on a pair of private ranches that are the strongest population hubs for Highlands County bears.
M34 then made another trek, circling west to the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area of Charlotte County. He turned back to the Fisheating Creek ranch complex after a week. On July 9th his collar reached maximum capacity, its automated release was triggered, and we recovered it from the field. His last known location was roughly 30 miles from where he began his dispersal, but still within the range of the Highlands/Glades population. In eight weeks, he had moved over 500 miles, spanning an area of roughly 110 miles north to south.
Following in M34’s Footsteps
M34’s travels were a crucial piece of evidence when Carlton Ward and Tom Hoctor were taking the first steps to unveil the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision and opportunity. It bore testament to the fact that the landscape held potential for dispersal by secretive wide-ranging wildlife, and gave our project additional legitimacy.
Our findings from the M34 data and other bears suggested that the Highlands/Glades black bear represent an ecological microcosm of the entire Florida peninsula. It has a solid toehold in several key areas, just like our large public conservation lands. In order to survive, the black bear must be able to move between its strongholds.
Overlapping needs for black bear movement, Florida panther survival, plentiful clean water for the Everglades and Florida’s ranching and outdoor heritage are all compelling angles on the same story. Florida must maintain its ecological connectedness.
The vision of a connected natural Florida is not new. We put a new name on the idea, and using social media and compelling art, we tried to tell a story that Florida and the world needs to know. The background – M34, Dave, Dr. Harris, Tom Hoctor’s science – was never far from my mind as we traipsed our way north on the expedition.
We were allowed an almost uninterrupted view of the world as M34 might’ve seen it. We were following in his footsteps, and those of untold numbers of other bears, panthers, Native Americans, cracker cow hunters and explorers. We were also following the lead of many who have worked to ensure that the opportunity still exists.
Learn more about Florida’s Black Bears
Joe Guthrie shares his experience tracking black bears – National Geographic Newswatch