Wearing a hard hat and safety vest, I stepped onto the sands where bears and panthers could leave footprints in the future. A large wildlife crossing structure is under construction on Interstate-4 near Disney World. The crossing represents just one of the limited spots where wildlife can hope for safe passage through this massive road barrier.
The current survival plan for the endangered Florida panther, whose current population is only 120-230, stipulates that additional habitats must be provided to grow the population and corridors to connect them to maintain genetic flow. A panther’s territory is large because they roam in search of mates and food; As an umbrella species, protecting the panther habitat can also protect other wildlife living on the same land.
Once an individual panther reached I-4 (and there were some roaming males, although most of the panther population was south of the Caloosahatchee River), it would have to be lucky enough to successfully cross dozens of highways. all-consuming enhancement that eliminates portions of home ranges.
Southwest Florida, where the Florida panther’s current breeding range is struggling to continue, is already a hotspot for road deaths. These vehicle-panther collisions are the leading documented cause of death. Every year, 20-30 panthers are killed by crashing into vehicles.
In Glades and Highlands counties, the highly endangered subpopulation of Florida black bears, isolated from other bears, is also struggling to cross roads safely. It was here that a bear known as “M34” roamed that inspired the Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative. The need to save wild Florida and provide a green infrastructure for both people and wildlife from the Everglades to the Panhandle and beyond was even mentioned by the state legislature in 2021.
Standing at the new junction, it was easy to see and hear why highways are so deadly to wildlife and can tear populations apart (with the deafening buzz of non-stop traffic). It’s rewarding to see a positive step towards conservation bear fruit, and to feel the momentum with state and federal agencies recognizing Florida’s need for wildlife corridors and connectivity for all wildlife species.
But everywhere we are reminded that for every two steps there is a step back and our pace of action must be accelerated. The same week I visited the pass, one of the only known Florida panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River was killed in a vehicular attack in Glades County. With the loss of this panther, the panther’s rescue became potentially more out of reach.
The following key steps are required to protect the panther’s main source population and continue to proactively plan for Florida panther expansion through a statewide wildlife corridor:
- State and federal agencies should reject proposals for development and highways that are inappropriately located within the habitat of the listed species, degrade public lands, or degrade green spaces. For example, new developments in eastern Collier County (such as Belmar) are within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and should not be allowed. In the past, bad projects faced with permissive barriers or denials have caused landowners to become willing sellers for public procurement or conservation easements.
- Prioritize and fund the land acquisition and underpass structures needed to resolve panther road death points in southwestern Florida and preserve the ability of Florida panthers to travel up to I-4 and into northern Florida.
- Tell your local, state, and federal elected officials and agency representatives that wildlife habitat is critical not only for these species, but also for our quality of life, clean water, agriculture, and wilderness recreation needs.
While ambitious, it’s the only way to be sure of their future if we build it.
Amber Crooks is the Environmental Policy Manager for the Southwest Florida Conservation Area.