Smack-dab in the middle of the triangle formed by Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, Highlands County seems to travelers on U.S. 27 like so much of the rest of central Florida. Orange groves stretch for miles, and residential developments with names like Sylvan Shores and Sun ‘n Lake promise waterfront lots and year-round golf.
But there’s another world out there, beyond the malls and citrus groves. Highlands County’s mosaic of woods, scrub, and wetlands hosts a notably diverse range of wildlife, thriving not just in parks and preserves but on private land, especially cattle ranches that sprawl over thousands of acres. Here, a seemingly incongruous partnership of environmentalists and ranchers protects some of the best of wild Florida, including the threatened Florida scrub-jay, rare endemic plants, and an isolated black bear population. What happens in Highlands County over the next few years could have a pivotal impact on one of the most ambitious conservation proposals in the state’s history.
Just before sunrise on a cloudless December morning, biologist Joe Guthrie fires a tranquilizer dart into the flank of a 275-pound male black bear standing just 10 yards away, its dark coat shining in the sun. Guthrie watches in disbelief as the aluminum cylinder bounces off the bear and falls to the ground.
A few minutes later he and four other members of a University of Kentucky research team gather on a sandy road, where big paw prints lead into an open woodland of slash pine and saw palmetto. In the distance, sandhill cranes bugle and red-shouldered hawks scream. Guthrie’s colleague, Wade Ulrey, holds up the dart, its needle tip bent and blunted. “I think we’ve had a critical dart failure,” he says. “This thing must have hit solid bone.”
The question on everyone’s mind: How much of the sedative ended up in the bear? In a worst-case scenario, the animal could wander into one of the swamps in these woods, collapse unconscious in the water, and drown. Normally a transmitter in the dart would help locate the bear, but this dart, of course, is in Ulrey’s hand.
The odds of such a fatal occurrence are small, and an examination of the dart shows that little if any of the drug was injected. Just to be safe, though, team members fan out to search the area. Visibility is good among the pines, but an extensive swath of nearly impenetrable palmetto patches could provide cover for an army of bears.
The five men are part of a project begun by the late David Maehr (see “A Bear’s Best Friend,” below), a biologist who worked extensively in Florida before and after moving to a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1997. The team has radio-collared more than 50 Highlands County black bears over the past seven years, assembling data on the population’s habitat, diet, birthrate, and movement patterns. This failed attempt at capture hardly affects the research—and the big male, easily recognizable by a white chest blaze, turns up healthy and active in the same spot a few days later.
Highlands County offers excellent conditions for black bears. Besides tracts of dense vegetation for cover, there’s abundant food. Acorns are seasonally plentiful, as are wetland succulent plants such as pickerelweed and alligator flag. In addition, local bears occasionally gorge on palm hearts and saw palmetto fruits. Some biologists speculate that a steroidlike substance in palms helps Florida black bears gain their adult weight more quickly and reach sexual maturity faster than their counterparts elsewhere.
Yet the future of this population is far from assured. Even in this mostly rural area (fewer than 100,000 people in a county of little more than 1,000 square miles), the same development pressures that have transformed much of Florida are threatening the natural landscape, as politicians and landowners promote new highways and sprawling housing developments that encroach on bear habitat. “We know that bears can, when they’re pushed to the limit, have a fairly high tolerance of people,” says John Cox, the University of Kentucky biologist who heads the bear study. “The bigger question is, Can these lands sustain a population of sufficient size that can persist long-term into the future? These animals have the third-lowest genetic diversity of any black bear population in North America. That tells you a lot about how relatively isolated they are.”
For years Florida conservationists have dreamed of creating a wildlife corridor that would link the Everglades–Big Cypress region with Ocala National Forest north of Orlando, and then continue northward to Okefenokee Swamp in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Connecting habitats could expand the range of the Florida panther, the critically endangered eastern form of mountain lion whose population in the state totals only about 120 individuals. And in Cox’s view, bringing the southern portion of such a corridor into existence is the best way to save central Florida’s black bears, thought to number fewer than 150.
“From a genetic-diversity standpoint, Big Cypress bears are in pretty good shape, because the population is somewhere between 500 and 900 animals,” he says. “So it’s very critical that those two populations be reconnected in some way for Highlands County black bears’ long-term viability.”
Still, not even the most optimistic conservationists imagine that a wildlife corridor linking Highlands County to Big Cypress can be created solely on public lands. “We’ve had such a focus on our pristine public protected areas that it’s somewhat diverted attention away from the fact that the working landscape, the farms and ranches, are critical for maintaining habitat connectivity,” says Hilary Swain, who is involved in the bear study and is director of Highlands County’s Archbold Biological Station, a research center and 5,193-acre nature reserve that bears frequent.
The corridor concept was given a substantial boost in mid-2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area that would encompass more than 150,000 acres of central Florida. The new refuge would use a combination of public and private lands to protect native habitats.
Which brings us back to John Cox and his researchers’ work. The study area’s center—where, in mid-December, several female bears lie in dens, bringing another generation of cubs into the world—is no wildlife refuge but the privately owned Smoak Ranch, home to nearly a thousand Brangus cattle. It’s just one of several expansive ranches in the region where black bears are not only tolerated but welcomed by landowners as links to the wild Florida their ancestors knew.
If you called the casting office and told them to send over a cowboy, Cary Lightsey would show up. Tall, tanned from a life on horseback, with a mustache and a well-worn straw hat, he looks the part he plays in real life: sixth-generation Florida cattle rancher. His family’s real estate holdings make him a multimillionaire, but he describes himself as “head Ph.D.—posthole digger.”
Although most people associate Florida with beaches and resorts, the state has long been a leader in cattle production, dating back to the 16th century and the days of Spanish rule. More than five million acres of Florida (nearly a fifth of its area) are devoted to ranching, and the state is home to six of the top 10 beef-producing ranches in the United States. “Cracker” ranchers—so named for the sound their whips make when used in cattle drives—proudly maintain a tradition that endures as a vital part of the state’s economy and history. For many, their heritage includes an appreciation of the land and its native flora and fauna.
“Years ago our family started leaving 40 percent of our land native,” Lightsey says. He takes pride in the bald eagles and bears on his property, because wildlife is as much a part of his life as horses and cattle. He was a natural to participate in Florida’s conservation easement program, in which landowners, while maintaining title to their land, are paid to give up certain development rights. Easements make it possible to protect habitat and threatened species much more cheaply than buying the land outright.
For the Lightseys and many other families who sell easements on their land, there’s another benefit: the chance to forestall the kind of intrafamily conflict that they’ve seen when children and grandchildren share control of substantial resources and disagree over financial decisions. “We’ve done conservation easements on 85 percent of our land,” Lightsey says, “and before it’s time for my brother and me to leave, we will have done [almost] every bit of it. And then there’ll be a really good understanding of what this land can be used for. There’s going to be no family bickering. There’s going to be nobody saying, ‘Why don’t we develop it?’ You can’t.”
Highlands County straddles the geological feature called the Lake Wales Ridge, a dry, sandy, slightly elevated strip that runs down the middle of peninsular Florida like a backbone. Formed of dunes that, unlike the rest of the state, were never inundated during sea-level fluctuations over the past million-plus years, its nutrient-poor soil supports a specialized flora and fauna that includes dozens of endemic species. Eighty-five percent of the ridge’s original habitat has been destroyed. Various private Florida agencies acquired several areas on the ridge—a significant tract is preserved as the privately operated Archbold Biological Station—that could be part of a corridor for black bears and other wildlife.
From scrub oaks, hickories, scattered pine, fetterbush, and palmetto on the ridge, plant life changes dramatically down the slope on either side. Slightly lower and wetter ground supports a more open habitat called flatwoods. Even lower is baygall, where loblolly bay, sweetbay magnolia, red bay, and head-high leather ferns grow on perpetually swampy ground. The dense vegetation creates excellent den sites for female bears.
Identifying important bear habitat and creating a wildlife corridor to connect Highlands County and Big Cypress—whether in a new national wildlife refuge or by independently protecting contiguous areas—could support biodiversity far beyond black bears and panthers. Florida scrub-jays, short-tailed hawks, sandhill cranes, limpkins, wood storks, swallow-tailed kites, crested caracaras, burrowing owls, indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, and sand skinks would benefit from additional protected lands, as would endemic plants, including the scrub blazing star, the Florida ziziphus, and Garrett’s mint.
Growth in and around Highlands County has slowed with the recent economic recession, but conservationists are watching developments that could radically change the landscape and threaten the future of bears and their neighbors in the scrub, flatwoods, and baygalls.
“Our goal is to preserve as much of natural Florida as we can before it’s lost to development,” says Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida’s executive director. “If we preserve a wildlife corridor for the benefit of Florida black bears, then many other species will use that land, most notably the Florida scrub-jay, one of Florida’s only endemic species.”
Landowners and politicians supporting a proposed north-south highway called the Heartland Expressway claim it would ease congestion on existing roads; opponents say its main purpose is to enable new areas of central Florida to be commercially developed. There’s no question, though, that it would destroy substantial habitat and fragment even more areas. Whatever its original objective, sprawl would surely follow.
Developers have proposed major planned communities covering thousands of acres around Lake Placid, though hundreds of already developed lots and foreclosed-upon houses are available in the county. Florida’s real estate bust has put most projects on hold for now, but they loom as future threats and could well jeopardize a wildlife corridor’s success before it even has a chance to be implemented.
Through a conservation program funded by real estate fees, Florida has acquired significant tracts of land to protect its varied habitats; more than a quarter of the state is now in public ownership or conservation easements. The funding mechanism contains an element of Catch-22, though: In boom times revenue generated from the fees rises, but so do land prices; when real estate prices drop, potential conservation lands are more affordable, but tax money to buy them drops as well. In 2010, as several large, bear-friendly tracts were on the market in and around Highlands County, local ranchers with lands hosting significant bear numbers were willing to sell easements. Unfortunately, the state had little money to acquire them.
While Swain knows development is inevitable, how and where it occurs will determine whether bears, scrub-jays, and sand skinks remain part of central Florida. “I think there are very few people who drive up and down the coast who feel that what was done there was done with a high degree of expert planning,” Swain says. “The opportunity is out there—let’s grasp it. But it’s going to take strong leaders who are willing to say no to the old ineffective way of planning and who will say yes only to the best of planning.”
On a sunny morning in January, a female black bear called F25 makes her way into thick scrub oak and palmetto south of Lake Placid, shaping a snug den for herself. Soon she will give birth to a litter of cubs. Just yards to the west, an old sand road through the scrub provides a vista of the lake’s shoreline, lined with houses along Placid View Drive.
How many of those folks know that, less than a mile away, F25 is bringing a new litter of cubs into the world? More to the point, how many of them will support the decisions that will have to be made to keep her in the neighborhood? The bears of Highlands County are waiting for the answer.