University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

The Black Bear in South Central Florida

Update on the male bear M19

Check out the recent article about how
Central Florida's ranches are Key to the Black Bear's Future
Maehr and crew with female bear

It may come as a surprise that black bears live in Florida, and more shocking yet that there may be more than 3000 of them distributed from the steamy swamps of the Big Cypress to the pine flatwoods of Apalachicola.  In fact, the black bear is found in 50 of Florida’s 67 counties – primarily in large forested tracts of public land. The populations in and around the Big Cypress National Preserve and Ocala National Forest are the state’s largest.  The bear population in south central Florida – Highlands and Glades counties – bucks this trend.  It exists in a fragmented landscape composed of cattle ranches, citrus groves, caladium farms, retirement homes, and high-speed roads.  The ownership of the land is primarily private, and this is where most of the woods remain.  Fortunately, many local ranchers and farmers value the cultural and natural attributes of Florida’s largest terrestrial vertebrate.  Such powerful allies have retained remnant forests in a way that supports south central Florida bears.  Here they eat acorns, palm fruit, and other natural foods; raise cubs in impenetrable bay swamps, and move, mostly unseen, through a sea of human activity.

Unfortunately, bears must cross highways, negotiate suburbs, and avoid humans to obtain the landscape’s scattered resources.  The population is small – perhaps fewer than 100 – making it one of the most imperiled of any in the United States.  South Central Florida bears are isolated from others in the state, and their genetic variability is among the lowest of any bear population known.  Males tend to be young because they are more likely than females to get killed on highways or illegally shot.  Females tend to be older because they have smaller home ranges and move less widely than males.  Nonetheless, their home ranges tend to be larger than those of females elsewhere in the state because, we think, they move through a patchy landscape with food that is distributed similarly.  We expect conditions to worsen for bear and human alike as highway plans evolve to widen existing highways and build new ones through remaining forests.  More bear roadkills mean fewer bears and a greater probability for human injury and death.  Our primary objective in studying this population is to understand its ecology and demographics well enough that the future includes safer highways for bears and people, informed citizens who appreciate the region’s unique wildlife, and improved habitat conditions for the black bear and many other imperiled species.

The black bear’s conservation value is unlike most other threatened species in Florida.  As a wide-ranging inhabitant of virtually all forested habitats, it is an umbrella for an array of other rare species and their habitats.  Successful black bear conservation will provide benefits to entire biotic communities and the unique landscape of the southern Lake Wales Ridge.

During our two years of studying this population we have captured over 40 bears and fitted many of them with GPS collars that record as many as 24 positions each day.  Thus far, the data reinforce the image of this population as small and isolated.  We have had 5 confirmed deaths including 2 roadkills and at least 1 illegal killing.  Another 4 have disappeared in areas that suggest interference by people.  The bears inhabit 3 distinct habitat patches that are separated by highways, agriculture, and urban development.  The persistence of the regional population is dependent upon the travels of the few bears that have taken the risk of crossing busy highways such as SR 70 and US 27; and skirting the town of Lake Placid.  A female traveled as far south as the north bank of the Caloosahatchee River – an apparent filter between the study area and the much larger population in the Big Cypress region.  The last documented connection between these populations occurred in 1986.  Is it possible that ongoing development has already isolated this population from other black bear populations and eliminated it from a statewide metapopulation?  If so, habitat protection and restoration must occur quickly.  Should development continue at predicted rates, and without the detailed information planned for the study described here, the black bear in south central Florida will be increasingly threatened with extinction.  Continued study of this population will be necessary to determine the trajectory of the population, calculate survival rates, pinpoint important landscape linkages and highway crossings, and document the frequency of dispersal into and out of the study area. 

Funding for this project has come primarily from the University of Kentucky and the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.  We have gotten additional support from Archbold Biological Station and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  Most importantly we have had the interest and support of key landowners in the area who understand the value of a natural landscape that is inhabited by bears and many other members of Florida’s prehistoric fauna.  Our field work is ongoing, but without additional funds the study will end before sufficient information is collected.

Our study animals, the researchers and the landscape - click for larger image.

Adult female and cub

Bay swamp

Bear habitat

Cutthroat grass & flatwoods

Bear pugmarks

Wade Ulrey examines F16

Female winter den

GPS-collared female 1

GPS-collared female 2

Highlands Co bear habitat

Joe Guthrie attaches collar

Uncollared male 21

Palm forest

F14 at first capture

F11 gets new collar

Roads and agriculture

Sunset at Smoak ranch

Joe Guthrie radio tracking

Male 17

Ranch and bear habitat

 

Bear food

9-banded Armadillo

Bear after acorns

Giant Palm Weevil

Giant Walkingsticks

Oak scrub

Palmetto heart