Florida’s black bears require many different habitats throughout the year to find food and mates. Their travels are accomplished through corridors that connect the hotspots that support their diet. Photo by Carlton Ward.
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.
The map of M34’s journey clearly illustrates both the corridors and public lands that facilitate travel and the barriers posed by Interstate Hiways.
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