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Features

Bagging the big one

The essentials for this scientific operation: bravery, luck, patience and doughnuts.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published November 12, 2006


A bear on the Hendrie ranch in Highlands County.

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[Photo: Carlton Ward]
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[Photo: Carlton Ward]
Florida Black Bear researcher Joe Guthrie adjusts the collar used to track a bear on the Hendrie Ranch in Highlands County.
Additional resources
  • To see the Heart of Florida 2007 Calendar, a fundraiser for ranchlands conservation, visit at www.upf.com.
  • To learn more about the communication projects of the Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture, please visit www.LINC.us.
  • The black bear research project will be presented in St. Petersburg on Nov. 15th at the Defenders of Wildlife International Carnivore Conference. For more information, please visit www.carnivoreconference.org

VENUS

A sticky afternoon in High-lands County, in the midst of scrub oaks and prickly pear cactuses, is a good time and a good place to catch black bears.

Dave Maehr steers a swamp buggy through deep water and sand on Central Florida's vast Smoak Ranch. Slowing down, he identifies animal tracks along the road.

"Bobcat. Coyote. Wild hog."

Hallelujah.

Bear tracks.

The chase is on.

Maehr catches bears for a scientific study that may help protect them. He can tell a lot about a bear from the signs it leaves behind. This one ambled out of the pines and walked through a stand of palmettos to eat berries.

Bear scat.

Maehr is thrilled with bear scat. Sometimes he collects it in plastic bags. Nine times out of 10 bear scat is as close as he gets to the bear.

"He's been eating berries," Maehr says. "Nice, fresh scat. He must be close."

At 51, Maehr is as pugnacious as the bears he tracks. After recovering from a painful hip replacement last spring, he went backpacking through the rugged mountains of Alaska. He was hoping to see a grizzly but never did.

He has gray hair, pale blue eyes and a prizefighter's flattened nose. He doesn't box but plays handball, swims competitively and, of course, chases bears to stay in shape.

Once or twice, bears have chased him. Or at least that was his first impression. As one bear rambled in his direction, Maehr tucked himself into a fetal position just in case. But the bear and its ferocious teeth and claws raced past.

Smarter than the average . . .

"Check this out!"

A black bear has used a pine tree as a scratch board, tearing away bark and leaving hair in the flowing sap. Maybe bears do it for fun. Maybe the mangled pine is a bear version of MySpace. Every bear in the neighborhood knows what other bears are in the neighborhood.

Bears have a remarkable sense of smell. Maehr is loath to leave signs of human presence. "Try not to touch anything," he tells assistants. "Be careful of where you pee."

He used to study black bears and panthers for the state of Florida; now he teaches wildlife science and studies bears for the University of Kentucky. He and his students have followed them in Hernando County and now in Highlands with the support of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Archbold Biological Station and the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.

When Andrew Jackson was Florida's governor two centuries ago, 12,000 bears had plenty of room to roam. Now about 2,500 are left. Development, cars and poaching are bad for bears. They may be holding their own, on public land and on private ranches, in Central Florida. But development is coming on strong. Information about the bears - where they go and how much land they need - may help urban planners in the future. It wouldn't be bad for the bears, either.

Studying bears, of course, often involves catching them first. In a perfect world, the bear would cooperate by stepping foolishly, lickety split, into a trap. In the real world, a dumb animal is smarter than a college graduate. Ursus americanus floridanus, the black bear of Florida, is notoriously difficult to trap.

Bear, 1, Trapper, 0

If this were one of those TV animal shows, Maehr would have a bear by now. Or at least some entertaining action. Perhaps he'd be wearing a loincloth, carrying a spear, mugging for the camera. Science is different. Catching a bear requires luck and hours of patience.

Maehr turns off the swamp buggy engine near a stand of sand pines and listens. If he had caught a bear in the trap he baited yesterday, he probably would have heard it growling and crushing vegetation by now.

He cranks up the engine and drives to the pine where he left the trap. The bear has managed to steal the bait - stale doughnuts from Kash n' Karry - and spring the snare without getting caught. Maehr doesn't roar like a bear in frustration, but lets loose with a string of swear words instead.

Back at the swamp buggy, Maehr and his burly young assistant, John Henry Harrelson, comfort themselves by eating a stale doughnut or two. "Bears have pretty good taste," Harrelson says.

Bears will eat anything. Besides pastries and palmetto berries, they eat acorns. They eat gopher tortoises and young pigs. They eat snakes and bird eggs. They eat fawns. They eat garbage.

Florida bears grow as fast or faster than any other North American black bears because of the year-round food supply. A decade ago, a 624-pound black bear was killed by a car in Naples when State Road 951 was a remote, country road. Now it has a Dunkin' Donuts. No bears.

Males with one-track minds

Muttering in the heat, suffering from thirst, mosquitoes and deerflies, and wondering if a rattlesnake is coiled nearby, Maehr kneels in the brush as sweat drips off his nose. He attaches a 9-foot cable snare to a pine. He covers up the snare with pine needles and sand.

Last time he set the snare only inches from the doughnuts. "Now we change our strategy," Maehr says. He piles the doughnuts in the same place but hides the snare 10 feet away. He cuts a path through the scrub oaks with a machete and hopes the bear will take the new path and somehow step into the snare.

Maehr catches mostly male bears during summer's mating season "Sex makes them dumb, just like people." Crazed to find a female in estrus, they wander 25 or 30 miles in a day and copulate with every mature female that doesn't run from them. They are so anxious, and so amorous, they lose weight. When hunger catches up, they sometimes get careless with doughnuts and Maehr catches one.

But seldom a female. Too wary.

Females are easier to catch in the fall. As their pregnancies advance, they need to put on weight before they go to their natal dens.

Bears, panthers and poachers

"Maybe we'll catch a bear tomorrow," Maehr says, driving to a bunkhouse on the nearby Hendrie Ranch. "Tomorrow, tomorrow" should be the bear catcher's theme song.

Maehr was born in Alaska, where his dad served in the military, and grew up in Ohio as one of those kids who loved birds and turtles. His passion for nature led him to Ohio State University and a job with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

He studied bears. He led a multiagency panther program until 1994. He quit and got his Ph.D. at UF. Later, he was blamed for flaws in panther research in Florida. He bristles that his reputation took a hit and thinks his work will be vindicated. In the meantime, he and his students are back in Florida catching bears.

"Every bear is different," Maehr says at supper. Some run, some fight. In Kentucky, he poked his head into a cave looking for a bear. She swatted at his face with a horrific roundhouse right and missed by an inch.

Not long ago, a female with cubs nearby chased an unlucky deer hunter up a tree on a Florida ranch. The hunter waited until dark to descend. In Florida, bear hunting is prohibited, though poachers kill them. Maehr thinks poachers have killed four of his study animals. Their radio collars are worth $4,000 each.

Periphery of the circle of death

The starlight shining on the woods is bright enough to hurt the eyes. The Andromeda Galaxy, 2.1-million light years away, is visible over the pines next to Pegasus. Closer to Earth, a firefly blinks on the edge of the cabbage palms. Whip-poor-wills cry in bear country, "tomorrow, tomorrow."

Dawn.

Bear men don't dawdle. They barely eat, hardly talk, head out into the woods in the dark, board the swamp buggy, rumble through the sand, shiver in the cool morning air, splash through the water, duck low-hanging spider webs, smell the woods for the untamed.

Stop the vehicle. Listen. Hear anything?

"We got one," whispers Maehr's assistant.

Hush up now. Don't rile the bear any more than necessary.

He is already riled. Ensnared by the left paw, the bear moves as far as his tether will allow in one direction, then trundles the opposite way. He stops, sniffs the air, a wild creature like the bear in that famous Faulkner chapter in Go Down, Moses: ". . . not fast but rather with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive."

Bear scrambles up pine like a squirrel. Bear scrambles down just as fast, turns and tries to stare down Maehr, who's careful not to meet its eye.

Bear does not woof. Bear does not bare its teeth, pop its jaws as another bear might, does not bluff a charge. Bear seems more defensive than aggressive.

"Stay out of the circle of death," Maehr hisses. Attached to the tree by the cable, the bear has about 18 feet of roaming room all told. Bear-locomotive suddenly whips around the tree. Maehr and his henchmen leap from the circle of death. "He could easily kill you." Take your head off. Disembowel you.

Maehr readies a tranquilizer dart. The dart is at the end of a long aluminum spear. He edges toward bear. Bear tries to run, hits the end of its cable. Maehr gets him in the hip.

Within minutes bear is huffing, drooling, looking sleepy. Not sleepy enough, though. Bear is bigger than Maehr thought, about 140 pounds or so, and will require additional sleep medicine. Although the bear lies in the sand, its head is up and pointing at Maehr. Maehr approaches on tiptoe and stabs the bear with the hypodermic, by hand, in the rump.

The bear stops moving but never closes its eyes. "Let's keep him calm." One assistant drips water on the paws to keep him cool. Another covers the bear's eyes with a flannel shirt.

The assistant, who has had little experience with bears, plunges his face into the bear's fur and inhales deeply. A wild bear, at least this one, smells something like mowed grass.

Maehr injects the bear with a computer chip that will help identify it in the future. He takes a fur sample for DNA. "Look at this," he says. The bear has a scar on its right flank, a souvenir from a fight with another male.

"He's old enough to reproduce, but a dominant male bear probably drove him away."

Man measures bear paws. "He is going to be a very big bear." He extracts a tooth. Scientists age bears by the rings inside a back tooth. Last comes the $4,000 radio collar.

Beep, beep, beep.

"We've got a signal."

Maehr's hands are shaking.

"It never stops being exciting," he says. "I don't care how many you catch."

An hour later, the bear struggles to its feet. Minutes later, it vanishes into the palmettos.

Contact Jeff Klinkenberg at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com Contact Carlton Ward Jr. at (813) 251-0257 or carlton@carltonward.com

Special thanks to Laurie Macdonald, Florida Defenders of Wildlife; John Fitzpatrick, Cornell University; Craig Pittman, St. Petersburg Times. Additional thanks to the Smoak, Hendrie and Lightsey ranches.

 

Tracking bears

For information about bears, see the Florida Defenders of Wildlife Web site: www.defenders.org/bearaware.

[Last modified November 11, 2006, 10:44:24]


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