Joe Guthrie paddles a kayak down one of the many creeks of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a key protected area along the Nature Coast of Florida. “Chass” and its neighboring conservation properties support a very small and imperiled population of the Florida black bear. The expedition team reached the area at the beginning the second week of their 70-day trek. (Photo by Carlton Ward Photography/Carlton Ward, Jr.)
The first two weeks of the 2015 Glades2Gulf expedition has seen us traverse a series of severe bottlenecks in the Florida Wildlife Corridor, crossing interstate highways, slipping past strip malls and moribund housing developments. A wild animal might experience these unnatural gauntlets in the same way a schoolboy would, the first time he’s handed a football and told to plow headlong into a line of scrimmage; staring up at hulking immovable linemen, headhunting linebackers lurking beyond, filling gaps, snagging anything that manages to dart through. These are the kinds of obstacles we’ve built for wildlife with roads and sprawling retirement communities.
We’ve now navigated to the Nature Coast of Florida, which includes a place where the loss of habitat and the impact of highways has left a small population of Florida black bears stranded in a shrinking envelope of habitat, squeezed between the Gulf salt marshes to the west and big roads and strip malls to the east. This is where we find the Chassahowitzka black bear.
The Nature Coast comprises the inside curve or Big Bend area of the western coast of the state, encompassing the counties stretching almost from Tampa to Tallahassee (see our map identifying the Big Bend here). For the most part the area lives up to its moniker, with several large stretches already under protection as wildlife refuges and water management areas, and timber operations filling in gaps in between small coastal fishing towns like Yankeetown, Cedar Key, Suwannee, and Steinhatchee.
My interest in this section of the expedition is in checking out the linkages in and around remaining bear habitat. With so much habitat left along the Nature Coast, it’s curious that the bear population hasn’t re-colonized much or any of it.
Bears in the “Chass” population are challenged just to exist, and appear to be restricted to public lands west of the town of Crystal River, at the very southern extreme of the Nature Coast. It’s the same condition they suffered under fifteen years ago, when the population was first investigated. In 2011, state biologists reported that Chass may include only 11 individuals, showing signs of severe genetic isolation.
Expanding the range of the Chass bear is unlikely. According to the biologists studying the population, the key to survival is to establish resident bears elsewhere along the Nature Coast to the north, such as at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, and then, to improve and restore bear habitat in potential wildlife corridors. The idea is that those animals will use corridors to find the Chass bears and breed there, providing at least a boost to the genetic health of those few remaining individuals.
With a spate of bear attacks over the last two years, talk of bringing back a Florida black bear hunt is making headlines in recent days. The larger conservation community in Florida is wrestling with how to handle bear-human conflicts, and I feel it’s important to recognize the role that wildlife corridors play in reducing negative bear-human interaction. One of the adverse effects of habitat fragmentation is that it brings human beings and wildlife into close contact (one case in point here). Reducing the chances for human conflicts that emerge when wildlife habitat is fragmented is considered one of the benefits of wildlife corridors.
Of course protecting the natural landscape of the Nature Coast is vital not just for the state’s black bear population, but for the continued vitality of hundreds of freshwater springs that are found here, and the small, local economies of the towns scattered up the coast, which rely heavily on timber, seafood, and eco-tourism (particularly where there are opportunities to see the West Indian manatee). This close linkage between little towns and the surrounding land and water is an under-appreciated fact about Florida, but it’s hard to ignore here. In recent years changing land uses and more intensive agriculture along the uplands to the east has worried the residents downstream, along the Nature Coast. Ask them about it and they will tell you that they can’t lose any more of what’s now in timber, and that what’s there now must be kept going. What will happen here in the coming years is unclear, but the Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition is here because we think this is a place that unquestionably matters for wildlife, but also because it has a distinct, old character that belongs to the Gulf.