I am a multi-generation Floridian and a photographer focused on wild Florida. I'm also a lifelong hunter who has killed my share of deer and hogs, so when I decided to document the first bear hunt in 21 years, I tried to keep an open mind.
I met my first Florida black bear up-close nine years ago when biologist Joe Guthrie was fitting it with a GPS tracking collar in a forested section of a cattle ranch in south-central Florida. What Guthrie and colleagues taught me about bears and their habitat needs inspired me to propose the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign in 2009, followed by a pair of 1,000-mile treks to document the corridor — a statewide network of wildlife habitat that is still connected and can still be saved.
Last week's bear hunt had been on my calendar since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, authorized it in June. When I arrived at the Rock Creek Run hunter check station on Oct. 24, I didn't really know what to expect. When the first dead bear was hoisted off of a tailgate that morning while news crews clamored for angles of the 23-year-old woman who shot it, I was more focused on documenting the moment than what I was actually witnessing.
By two hours after sunset, when the 22nd bear was weighed and measured — a 450-pound male with a flawless coat majestic even in death — my heart was heavy from all that I'd seen. But the strongest emotions didn't hit me until an hour later, after the protesters, media and FWC staff had quietly dispersed and I pointed my truck toward home.
From the dirt road of the reserve, I turned onto the two-lane blacktop of State Road 46 and drove east. I was deep in thought and numb from the day; 7 miles passed unnoticed. Then I hit Interstate 4, six lanes of screaming traffic, congested even at 10 p.m. Jolted by the frenzy of thousands of people pulsing past, an unexpected weight sank onto my chest and my eyes started to water.
Two Floridas, a few miles but worlds apart, one's fate hiding at the mercy of the other. If the black bear is an emblem of wild Florida, last week's bloodshed is a symbol of a much bigger conflict that is playing out at this very moment. Sprawling development has resumed its relentless reach into native lands, and if it continues without a plan, the Florida black bear as a species will suffer a fate worse than bullets, and with it the wild heart of our state it represents.
The good news is that if we want to save wild Florida, the black bear will show us how — and Amendment 1 money provides the means to pay for it. To see a vision for saving wild Florida, we have to look no further than the FWC Bear Management Plan (myfwc.com/bear). Much of what I will share about the Florida black bear comes straight from this plan with its goal to "maintain sustainable black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout Florida for the benefit of the species and people."
Florida black bears live in seven different subpopulations distributed throughout Florida, from the Everglades near Miami to the pine woods near Pensacola. Bears once lived as one connected population throughout the state, but they have become increasingly isolated as roads and developments have fragmented their habitat.
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According to the FWC, the first goal is "to maintain a sustainable statewide bear population." The second is to "maintain habitat in sufficient quantity, quality and connectivity to meet the population objective," with "increased connectivity between bear habitat areas to promote greater genetic exchange." The third objective "is to reduce human-bear conflicts."
For reconnecting isolated bear populations: "An important element to ensure genetic health over the long-term is to have interconnections among several subpopulations that would allow them to function as one large statewide population. Subpopulations should be distributed appropriately across the state in suitable habitats. Suitable habitats are areas large enough to support bears and are outside of towns and other densely developed areas."
During the first week of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Glades to Gulf Expedition earlier this year, our team traversed extensive stretches of suitable bear habitat where bears were largely absent. Places like the Green Swamp, Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and Big Bend Wildlife Management Area could all benefit from more bears.
Expanding bear ranges there could help with FWC's connectivity goals by providing a much needed lifeline from the substantial subpopulation in Apalachicola National Forest and Florida's smallest and most isolated population in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
Chassahowitzka provides a great example of what not do to as we further develop Florida. The roads, golf courses, shopping centers and houses sprawl out from U.S. 19 south of Crystal River without a corridor plan, largely separating Chassahowitzka from surrounding natural areas.
As the expedition entered the Panhandle, we hiked through vast timberlands that could permanently connect the Apalachicola and Eglin subpopulations through investing in land protection. We also visited coastal bear habitat at Topsail Hill State Park, between Panama City and Destin, where local bears and other wildlife could easily get cut off from the mainland habitat by pending development unless conservation corridors are implemented. Without corridors, Topsail bears will join Chassahowitzka bears on a path of inbreeding and local extinction.
With 1,000 people moving to Florida every day and the pace of development quickening for our 20 million residents, we have a limited window of opportunity to protect the wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity prioritized in the FWC Bear Management Plan.
Fortunately, we still have time to protect vital habitat corridors as well as a mechanism to do so. We should immediately invest $500 million a year from Amendment 1 revenue into protecting new conservation lands in order to reconnect the seven bear populations and save Florida's green infrastructure.
While some public land acquisition will be necessary, much of the wildlife corridor goals can be accomplished by protecting agricultural lands. Speaking of the Highlands/Glades subpopulation, prominent panther and bear biologist Dave Maehr once told me, "There would be no bears here if it wasn't for the proactive stewardship of ranchers."
Millions of acres of Florida are still green as working ranches and timberlands with many owners who would prefer a financial option for conservation rather than development. We can realize that opportunity by spending half of the Amendment 1 money on conservation easements to protect working farms and ranches that are compatible with habitat goals. Compared to purchasing new public lands, conservation easements protect more acres for less money, save the state from the management costs, keep the lands on the tax rolls and help ensure a future for Florida's sustainable $110 billion agricultural economy.
Using Amendment 1 funds to achieve the FWC Bear Management Plan's goal of reconnecting Florida's seven bear subpopulations is a well-defined map to saving wild Florida. Reconnecting the subpopulations will accomplish the protection of the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor (or Florida Ecological Greenways Network) that scientists like Larry Harris, Reed Noss, Tom Hoctor, Dave Maehr, Dan Smith and Richard Hilsenbeck have been pointing to for decades.
Reconnecting the seven bear subpopulations will also benefit Florida far beyond saving the black bear. It will ensure a future for the Florida panther and myriad species of wildlife that depend on the same connected habitats; help restore the Everglades by protecting its headwaters and reviving its natural flow; protect the heritage and economies of our working lands; safeguard the freshwater supplies to our aquifers, river and estuaries; expand recreation and tourism; and encourage more vibrant and economically competitive cities.
I hope that the bears that died last week will capture our attention and send us down a path to connect a statewide network of conservation lands for the future of their species and ours.
Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic Explorer focused on wild Florida. His photographs are published widely and available through CarltonWard.com and select galleries. Ward is the Rolex 2015 artist-in-residence of the Explorers Club and a leader of Florida Wildlife Corridor project, working to connect a statewide network of protected lands and waters. Read more at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org and follow Ward on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard.