1. Opinion

The bear that launched a 1,000-mile trek

Editor's note: A year ago Carlton Ward Jr., conservation photographer and eighth-generation Floridian, led a 100-day, 1,000-mile trek through the Florida wilds from the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp to show the promise and potential of a Florida Wildlife Corridor that would span the state. On March 3, a documentary on the expedition will premiere at the Tampa Bay History Center, which has also just opened an exhibit of his photos from the journey. This essay captures the moment when Ward's encounter with a bear named M13 inspired the idea of pushing the corridor into public awareness. It is reprinted from FORUM, the statewide magazine of the Florida Humanities Council.

The ferns spread thick around the trunks of subtropical hardwoods that deeply shade the forest floor. The ground is wet beneath my feet, quieting slow and deliberate steps. Joe Guthrie stalks 10 yards ahead but is nearly out of sight through the dense foliage. He motions for me to hold back — a good sign — he's caught a bear.

A few minutes later, he threads a syringe to the end of a jab pole and edges within range to sedate the animal. Anchored to a maple tree by a single cable snare, the bear is very much awake. Joe describes the radius around the tree as the "circle of death," a good reason for his stealthy approach. Hunter and spear deliver the drugs, and the bear settles by the base of the tree.

Black and wet with mud, the bear stares at me through penetrating amber eyes that embody the heart of wildness, a depth of life every bit as ancient and visceral as the growl of a jaguar in the Amazon or the ground-rumbling charge of a forest elephant in the Congo.

This bear's forest happens to be on a central Florida cattle ranch only 2 miles from U.S. 27. It feels like a rainforest in the summer heat. The canopy of bay trees interspersed with maple, cypress and pine hides much of the light — and also the fact that civilization is so near.

The bear is a 195-pound, 2-year-old male that Joe and his colleagues have named "M13." The animal awakens wearing a GPS tracking collar that will help them understand how bears are traversing the patchwork of natural, agricultural and developed lands of the Northern Everglades — a water-drainage basin extending from Orlando to Lake Okeechobee.

It is 2006, my second year of documenting Florida cattle ranches, and the same month that the cover story of Florida Trend magazine is headlined: "Final Frontier: Growth is coming to Florida's heartland. Who gets to say where it goes and how?"

Inside the magazine, the article reveals plans for two new highways that would crisscross the Northern Everglades — M13's home range. There is lengthy discussion of transportation, evacuation and development corridors, but no mention of corridors for water and wildlife.

I begin wondering: If we're having a public debate about building concrete corridors, shouldn't Floridians be talking about protecting ecological corridors at the same time?

I go to the Internet and search for "wildlife corridors" in Florida. There are almost no returns. I know that scientists and conservationists have been advocating their importance for decades, and big projects like Florida's Ocala-to-Osceola Corridor (O2O) have been achieving impressive results. (O2O, I would later learn, is part of a state ecological corridor plan.)

But somehow the idea has yet to reach the mainstream. Wanting to see that change, I reserve the domain name without fully understanding the scope of the adventure that was about to begin.