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.
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.