F011 is a study animal on the University of Kentucky’s South Central Florida black bear research project. Here she’s framed in a distinctive Florida ‘bayhead,’ where she will den and eventually raise a litter of cubs. Photo by Carlton Ward Photography
On an overcast December afternoon, I drove a creaking swamp buggy into an oak hammock in southern Highlands County, Florida and stopped. The team of four of us disembarked, sorted and distributed gear among the group, and began walking in single file towards the edge of a large hardwood swamp to our north. Two of us in the front carried rifles, each loaded with an aluminum tranquilizer dart. A third man, Wade Ulrey, carried an antenna and a small receiver, which he periodically held to his ear as he stopped, lifting the antenna and waving it slowly in a semi-circle toward the horizon.
As we entered the edge of the swamp our pace slowed, and our conversations stopped. Even then, well into the dry season, the ground oozed and sucked beneath our feet. Black water lay in pockets, pooled around large clumps of earth where the roots of toppled trees were upheaved and protruding. I leapt from hummock to hummock, staying dry. We used the downed trunks as platforms to walk, carrying us above a green tangle of ferns and vines crowding the forest floor. Red maple and sweetbay trees, smooth-barked and grey, rose out of the peat, shallow roots coiling out of black soil, carpeted with moss and newly fallen leaves. The day was nearing dusk.
A half-mile in, in the quickly-fading light the group stopped. Wade had paused again, and with the antenna aloft, he was pointing at a tangle of foliage to the right of our path. Following the line of his gaze, I took a cautious step forward, trying to see around a screen of ferns. Something shifted heavily deep down in the shadowed fronds, and the whole vast, breathing swamp condensed abruptly to a single point of vibration 15 yards in front of me. A still moment passed and my pulse pounded in my ears. Then rising out of the jungle came the black head and shoulders of a bear, standing upright on hind legs. As it rose the rifle came to my shoulder and I leveled it at the dark torso. At that proximity, the rifle scope was filled with a black mass, body parts indiscernible until I found the tan radiocollar around the neck. The screen of ferns blocked the shoulder that I wanted. Approximating the location of the sweet spot of thick muscle, I squeezed the trigger as the bear began to lower itself. A small oval of orange light flashed in the shadows, indicating that the tiny dart had found its target. The animal disappeared and tore off through the undergrowth, blasting through a tangle of vines, feet splashing in the shallow water. In seconds the noise evaporated, and we were left shaking and silent.
After waiting 5 minutes to let the drug take affect, Wade led us off in the new direction of the radio’s pulse. In short order we found the trail, marked by splashed ferns. Then we hurried, picking our way over and under downed trees and through dense stands of sapling sweetbay. In a worst-case scenario, the drugged animal could’ve collapsed unconscious in a pool of water and drowned. Though the odds of such a fatal occurrence are very small, we surged forward as the radio pulse grew louder in our ears.
In an opening we found the female bear, named F011, resting on her side, head propped on a deadfall tree. We milled around her under the light of our headlamps, measuring the head and body, lengths and girths, inspecting tooth wear and making note of distinguishing marks and scars. We replaced the dying radiocollar with a fresh unit, set to collect location data via GPS every hour for 18 months. We spoke sparingly in murmurs and gestures, and the barred owls called back and forth across the swamp.
When the workup was finished we stood back and waited, crouching on the edge of the trampled ferns, the steam from our breathing drifting up around us. An hour had passed. F011 had added 70 pounds since her last capture during the previous summer. Her glossy black coat rose and fell with steady breathing, and as the sedatives wore off her head began to bob up and down and she pawed clumsily at the ground. When we were satisfied with her recovery, the four of us shouldered our gear and slipped away, using a compass to guide us back to our buggy under the moonlight.