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.
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.
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.