STARKE, Fla. — The black bear was not happy. Snared by the wrist in a trap baited with Krispy Kreme donuts, he made popping sounds with his substantial jaws as two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers crept toward him.
Biologist Brian Scheick shot him with a tranquilizer dart, but he ripped it out with his teeth. Two more darts, and 15 minutes later, the 155-pound creature was quiet.
Scheick and technician Travis McQuaig took some quick measurements, tattooed the bear’s upper lip with an identification number and extracted a tooth to be used to estimate age. While McQuaig deactivated the other traps in the area, Scheick watched over the slumbering bear. By the time McQuaig returned, the animal was groggily awake.
The two men shooed him to get him upright and walking, and soon he lumbered deep into the woods.
“Intense, awesome. I was so excited,” McQuaig, a University of Florida senior, said later.
The young male bear caught June 18 is one of the subjects of a two-year, $71,000 FWC study funded by the Camp Blanding National Guard base on the recent bear colonization of the sprawling, wooded gun range. Just a few years ago, sightings of the large, furry creatures were rare on the 73,000-acre installation. But as the population grows, some might be trekking north from the bear-dense Ocala National Forest in search of new territory and mates.
“They want to know how bears are using the base, what habitats are important to them, and what habitats outside the base are important to bears that might be considered for noise abatement,” FWC wildlife biologist Walt McCown said.
The grant money pays for 15 state-of-the-art tracking collars costing nearly $4,000 apiece embedded with a GPS unit that uses a cell phone network to transmit text messages to McCown with the bear’s position up to 27 times per day. The battery is supposed to last for two and a half years, then drop off. Since last summer, McCown and colleagues have deployed nine of the devices. They chose not to collar last week’s captive because he likely would outgrow it before it was scheduled to pop off.
Trapping bears for study is exhilarating, somewhat dangerous, very time-consuming and not at all easy.
“They’re very intelligent, athletic and powerful,” McCown said.
Late spring/early summer is prime time for catching bears because it is the breeding season when animals are on the move.
To determine the best trapping locations, the researchers go “prospecting” with donuts as bait.
“We put bait piles up in areas that look good to us. When they start responding, that’s when we put the snares in,” McCown said.
The snares are made of heavy cable resting in a shallow hole with soil and debris covering a trigger. When the bear is caught, a radio transmitter starts beeping. The researchers wait to hear beeps before checking the traps. If they check the traps too often, they risk scaring away their quarry.
In two nights of deploying nine snares and one culvert trap (a large baited pipe with a door) last week, the scientists caught only the lone male bear.
On the second night, one of the snares located on private land near Camp Blanding transmitted an alert shortly after dark. When the researchers got there, they found an empty snare and all the donuts gone.
McCown theorized the perpetrator might be a bear snared by the toe several weeks ago in the same area that freed itself before they could capture it. Now it ostensibly had returned, eating all the bait and tripping the trap without getting caught. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, McCown said. In 15 years of studying Florida black bears, the veteran biologist has seen it all, including the “goat eater” – a furry marauder with a voracious appetite for one particular kind of livestock; “Liberace” – a handsome male that enjoyed hanging out with the ladies but never seemed to score; and a particularly bold culprit that evaded dozens of traps before finally getting caught.
Could this latest trap-tripping bear be mocking its pursuers?
“They’re very intelligent,” he said.