Panther Passages: Connecting habitat to protect a federally endangered species
In the Sunshine State, no animal is more at risk than the Florida panther, which has reached a cross road – quite literally.
By Greg Knecht, Director of Protection for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
The heavily traveled State Road 80 bisects southwest Florida along the edge of Lake Okeechobee and across a fragmented landscape of small towns, ranches, farmland and, more recently, sprawling residential subdivisions. This area once made up a portion of Florida’s historic Everglades, also called the “River of Grass,” which spanned millions of acres between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay. Today the Everglades – including its headwaters region that extends north nearly to Orlando – have been whittled down through various land development projects, leaving behind a heavily altered landscape.
Changes to the Everglades affect more than eight million people in South Florida, residents that depend on the health of this natural system for their livelihoods. The region’s natural assets include flood control benefits and provide for our water supply needs, to name a few. But changes to this fragile landscape, which contains large blocks of vital, native wildlife habitat, also pose tremendous threats to wildlife.
© A commonly found sign along stretches of Florida roadway. CREDIT: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.No animal is more at risk than the Florida panther, which has reached a cross road at State Road 80 – quite literally – in the majestic cat’s search for territory north of the highway. These wide-ranging cats once prowled the entire southeastern United States, relying on large territories for breeding and hunting. But lands historically utilized by the panther have been converted to other uses, forcing them to survive in small pockets in South Florida that equate to less than five percent of their historic range. To increase the panther’s chance for survival, The Nature Conservancy is working together with a variety of conservation organizations to create a connected corridor of protected areas to allow panthers a safe passage northward into expanded territory.
Vehicle collisions with panthers are the leading cause of deaths for these animals, making State Road 80’s popular panther crossing spots a key component in the effort to save them. To address this issue, The Nature Conservancy in Florida partnered with several landowners and the Florida Department of Transportation to create a panther underpass on State Road 80 and ensure that protective fencing was put in place to funnel the big cats safely under the highway. This underpass borders panther habitat to the north that was protected in 2012 by the Conservancy and a broad coalition of partners. The Nature Conservancy is now working to secure nearly 1,500 acres of prime panther habitat south of the state road to provide a key access point for panthers to travel northward. With only an estimated 160 panthers in existence, providing a natural passage for their northward dispersal is critical to establishing a healthy and breeding subpopulation in the Northern Everglades.
© A Florida panther kitten. CREDIT: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.Efforts like these are being bolstered by partnerships that raise public awareness, like the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a team of explorers that is currently hiking, biking and paddling their way from Florida’s heartland in Central Florida to the Florida panhandle to generate support for connected wildlife corridors. With the help of experts from The Nature Conservancy and several other conservation groups and universities, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition mapped out a 70-day long journey from the Northern Everglades, along the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida border in Alabama.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also just announced a partnership with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to lead a project that will restore rare or declining habitats to save species like the Florida panther, gopher tortoise and Florida grasshopper sparrow in almost five million acres in Central Florida.
By working together, federal and state agencies and private partners are maximizing this unique – and maybe final – opportunity to ensure that the Florida panther does not slip into the chasm of extinction.