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Bears on the Brink

By Joe Guthrie, Biologist, Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition Team Member

With us the night we stalked F011 [previous blog entry] was the late biologist Dave Maehr, who’d begun the project of which we were all four a part.  Dave worked throughout Florida over his career, including after he’d taken a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1997.  Our team, which included Wade Ulrey and me as graduate students, and John Cox, an assistant professor of wildlife also at UK, have radio-collared over 70 Highlands County black bears over the past 10 years, gathering data on the population’s habitat and range distribution, genetics, diet and movement patterns.  The bears of the Highlands/Glades County (a.k.a. South Central Florida) subpopulation are the last to be studied among the seven bear subpopulations found in Florida.

A curious Florida black bear peers into the lens of a camera trap nestled among pine trees and saw palmetto. Photo by Carlton Ward, Jr./Carlton Ward Photography/www.carltonward.com
A curious Florida black bear peers into the lens of a camera trap nestled among pine trees and saw palmetto. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com

Our research has largely borne out what anecdotal observations and local history have long suggested: Highlands County offers excellent conditions for the Florida black bear.  There are tracts of dense vegetation, providing cover for den sites and abundant food.  In the spring succulent plant foods emerge in the wetlands, like pickerelweed and alligator flag. Bear diets rely on grapes and other soft masts in the summer months.  As fall nears they gorge on saw palmetto berries.  Throughout the fall months the acorn, the staple of black bear diets across much of its range, becomes plentiful, littering the live oak hammocks and the oak scrub.  Area historian Albert DeVane, writing in the 1940s about the large “bayhead” swamps and sandy scrub uplands of south Highlands County, called it the best bear hunting ground in all of Florida.