Wildlife study at National Guard training facility may yield insight into black bear behavior

Written by  //  September 20, 2011  //  Feature Stories

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FWC biologist and bear expert Walter McCown follows a tranquilized 320-pound Florida black bear during a study at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Fla., this summer. The bear was measured, tagged, and is being tracked by Florida Fish and Wildlife biologists using a specialized collar. Photo courtesy Camp Blanding Environmental Office.

CAMP BLANDING JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Fla. (Sept. 20, 2011) – A wildlife study at the National Guard’s training post in north Florida may soon give biologists insight into one of the state’s most intriguing inhabitants.

The two-year study of Florida black bears at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Starke began this summer, and will be looking into the movement patterns and behavioral habits of the omnivorous mammals on the military site.

The study is a partnership between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Camp Blanding, and may help answer questions about what appears to be an expanding bear population at the 72,000-acre training site.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Biologist Walter McCown (right) camouflages a snare to catch a Florida black bear at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Fla., in late June 2011, while FWC volunteer Travis McQuaig and FWC technician Julie Burford watch. The two-year study of Florida black bears at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Starke began this summer, and will be looking into the migratory and behavioral habits of the omnivorous mammals on the military site. Photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa

“We want to see what the bears are doing here on Blanding, because we are seeing more and more bears everywhere,” Camp Blanding Environmental Manager Paul Catlett explained. “I’ve got guys who have worked here for 35 years, and in the last five years have seen their first bear…Is it the fact that there are more bears now or the fact that they are losing habitat?”

Catlett, who lives on the post and has been working there for 17 years, said he thinks there are just more bear sightings because the population of the animals has gradually increased. He said sightings can spike when their habitats are encroached upon by development, but that doesn’t appear to be the case at Blanding.

A robust bear population on the post could mean the habitat here is strong and healthy, Catlett said.

“As a land manager I want to know that we’re doing the right things; that we’re having a positive influence,” he said. “It’s possible this is a sign that the habitat is strong and we’re doing the right things here.”

Black bears are the only species of bear found in Florida, and the FWC estimates there are between 2,500 and 3,000 black bears in the state. Adult bears weigh between 125 to 450 pounds, and can be found anywhere in Florida.

The study itself is simple: biologists and volunteers place specialized tracking collars on the bears and follow their movements around the area via radio signals. The movements are plotted on a map with a latitude and longitude point for each signal, letting the team see when the bears move and where exactly they go.

Getting the collars on the wild animals is a much more complicated matter.

The study-team pinpoints high “bear-traffic” areas on Camp Blanding, sets snares at the sites, and places scent lures (usually glazed donuts or fabric soaked in bacon fat) around the area. When a curious bear sniffs his way to the site and gets caught in the snare, a radio signal lets the team know it has a catch. The captured bear is then tranquilized, weighed tagged, and fitted with the tracking collar.

“We can respond quickly, dart them, and get them out of the snare,” explained Walter McCown, an FWC research biologist who specializes in bears.

After an hour or two the bear wakes up from the effects of the tranquilizer and is sent back into the forest.

“These collars are actually quite sophisticated,” McCown explained. “They will acquire positions from GPS satellites and report the positions through a text message to a ground base on my computer. We don’t have to follow them around. We’ll be getting 24 to 27 locations a day, which we will use to identify travel-ways for bears.”

A member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) measures the paw of a Florida black bear during a study at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Starke, Fla., this summer. Photo courtesy Camp Blanding Environmental Office.

The collared bear will get used to the device around its neck after a couple of days, McCown said. The thick leather collar weighs less than four pounds with the attached battery pack, and is programmed to drop off the bear’s neck after about two years.

McCown and the study group have already identified and collared five bears on Camp Blanding, and have collared an additional two bears that were off the post. Five of the bears were males – the largest male captured weighed 320 pounds. The FWC is receiving data from each collar and sharing the results with two local schools to help educate children and dispel misconceptions about the animals.

“Many people in Florida are surprised we actually have bears here,” McCown, who has been studying the mammals for 15 years, said. “They are not aware of it, although bears are becoming more of an issue in this state. I think part of my mission is to spread information about how neat bears are, how to live with bears, and the value of preserving and maintaining the bear populations in the state.”

Another result of the ongoing study may clear up a bit of a mystery surrounding the bear population on Camp Blanding; it could explain why the black bears at the base all seem to have migrated from Ocala National Forest about 25 miles away.

Since the training base sits midway in a natural corridor between the sprawling Ocala National Forest to the south and the smaller Osceola National Forest to the north, biologists might expect to find bears from both forests at Camp Blanding. However, according to Catlett a previous study of the Blanding bear population found that it shared DNA exclusively with the Ocala bears.

Both Catlett and McCown said the data from this current study may help determine if the Ocala or Osceola bears are avoiding certain areas during their movements or are deterred by specific roads or other obstacles to travel between the two forests.  The data could possibly be used to help connect parcels of land to facilitate the bear movement and create additional conservation easements if warranted.

Based on initial data McCown said he thinks there are only a few resident bears on Camp Blanding, but other bears pass through regularly due to their penchant for the thick bottomland hardwood and well-preserved swampy areas of the post.

“There are maybe four to five resident animals now, but I hope there will be more in the future,” he said.

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