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Bear trackers use GPS in bid to preserve the animals

  • Story Highlights
  • Researchers in South Florida capture bears, outfit them with GPS collars
  • Collars help researchers track bears' movements
  • Healthy bear population relies on animals' free movement, breeding
  • Bears' natural habitat has been reduced, fragmented by development
By Kim Segal and John Zarrella
CNN
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HIGHLANDS COUNTY, Florida (CNN) -- At the heart of Florida researchers' high-tech efforts to protect black bears is a rather low-tech tool: day-old doughnuts.

A young bear sits next to a pine tree after being snared by one of the traps set by researchers.

A young bear sits next to a pine tree after being snared by one of the traps set by researchers.

Researchers use the doughnuts and other stale pastries to bait traps for the bears. Once snared, the bears are tranquilized and then fitted with a GPS collar. Using cell phone technology, every 15 minutes the collar sends a text message that tells researchers where the bear is located.

Tracking the bears' movements -- or lack thereof -- is important. Dr. John Cox, head of the South-Central Florida Bear Project, said the bear population, in order to stay healthy, must be able to travel to different locations throughout the state. They need to travel between different bear populations.

But that mobility has been decreasing.

There was a time, Cox said, when the bears were free to roam the entire state. As development increased, however, the black bear lost much of its habitat. And the habitat that remained has become more fragmented due to development, primarily roads.

The result: The bears become more isolated, with inbreeding within that isolated population.

"This population of bears is actually losing genetic diversity," Cox said. "You see that loss of healthy genes in the population over time.

"That is a sign of isolation."

Having the bears wear the GPS collars is "wonderful because the bears are telling us what habitat we need to protect," said Tricia Martin of The Nature Conservancy. As of now, 55 black bears in the area have been fitted with collars. Video Watch the researchers at work »

Researchers want to know whether the bears' travels have them crossing a road, an orange grove, or somewhere else in order to get from place to place. Collecting data on the corridors the bears need to travel will help in pinpointing what land should be sought for conservation purposes.

But first the bears must be snared -- and that's where the doughnuts come in.

"The doughnuts are a good bait, they can smell and it'll bring them in," said Wade Ulrey, one of the researchers with the South-Central Florida Bear Project.

Recently a young female bear was found in a snare trap -- lured there by the doughnuts, or perhaps the brownie with whipped cream and a cherry that also had been placed there.

Ulrey and fellow University of Kentucky research scientist Joe Guthrie slowly approached the trapped bear. The animal, with a cable around its paw, tried to climb a pine tree to escape. Photo See photos of a snared bear »

The researchers waited for the bear to calm down, then they injected her with a tranquilizer that was at the end of an 8-foot-long pole. As they waited for the drug to take effect, Ulrey and Guthrie returned to their truck to gather the tools they needed to examine the bear.

"We have a couple of bags of ice here to help keep her cool," Ulrey said as he placed the bags under the legs and arms of the unconscious bear. The team scanned the 2½-year-old and realized she already had a microchip implanted under her skin.

"It's similar to an ID system used for pets," said Ulrey. The chip tells the researchers that this bear was caught in 2007, when she was a cub still roaming Florida with her mother.

The researchers weighed and measured the bear. Then Ulrey used tweezers to pull out a bit of hair. "We can get a DNA sample from this to see if she is related to any other bears we've captured in the area," Ulrey said.

This young black bear, however, won't be telling researchers where she will be traveling. She is too young to be outfitted with a GPS collar.

Ninety minutes later, the tranquilizer wears off. The bear is awake and appears unharmed.

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"Usually the things you'll see is a little bit of an abrasion where they've rubbed some of the fur off, or maybe a cut," Cox said when asked about the danger of using a snare trap.

As this young cub wanders off, the research team can only hope she finds a road less traveled -- and stays off the highways.

All About Nature and the Environment

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