In a place known for citrus groves and golf courses, a group of dedicated researchers and ranchers is drawing a road map to success for one of the state's biggest mammals.
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.