Labelle, FloridaSouthwest Florida is still a wild place, where you can encounter a bear, a bobcat, or a panther. These creatures roam through large territories, and depend on a patchwork of public and private lands called the Florida wildlife corridor, which strings its way throughout the state.
One such spot is Babcock Ranch, a mix of cypress swamps and sprawling pastures in which cows and birds like endangered wood storks commingle. In November 2016, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted a female Florida panther here, and allowed photographer Carlton Ward Jr. to set up a camera trap in a nearby grove of oak trees. He later photographed the cat with two cubs.
It was a monumental moment: This was the first female panther to be seen north of the Caloosahatchee River—a waterway a few miles south that flows west from Lake Okeechobee and drains into the gulf near Fort Myers—since 1973.
David Shindle, head panther biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had been dreaming about such a moment his whole career. “She was a game changer,” he says, "an embodiment of resiliency."
To survive long-term, these cats will need to expand into millions of acres of habitat to the north—making this sighting extraordinarily good news for the Florida panther, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
While panthers reclaim their former territory, Florida's human population is booming: More than 900 people move to the Sunshine State every day on average, and problems like heavy traffic are getting worse in some areas. Smart planning is a must, though not all agree on what that means.
In a major push for development earlier this year, the state government approved the construction of three toll roads in three different sections of the state. The controversial legislation, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on May 17, is known as M-CORES—the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance program. It was put forward by Senate President Bill Galvano and quickly approved by the legislature on May 1.
These corridors include two in northwestern Florida, one that would include the extension of the Florida turnpike, and another called the Suncoast Connector, which would build a new corridor 150 miles long from Citrus County all the way to the Georgia state line.
The third highway would span 140 miles from Orlando to Naples, though the exact route has yet to be determined. Regardless of the alignment, however, it would slice through some of the state’s wildest remaining lands and vital territory for the panther, the state’s official animal. All three roads could potentially impact the wildlife corridor in some way. (See photos of Florida's wildlife habitat.)
Those who advocate for the wildlife corridor and animals such as panthers generally oppose the project, though some environmentalists are being included in the process: Each corridor has a task force assigned to study the issue, help propose a route for the road, and the like. These meetings will begin August 27 in Tampa.
“Growth needs to accommodate our state’s green spaces,” says Jason Lauritsen, who will participate in one of the task forces as the head of the nonprofit Florida Wildlife Corridor, which lobbies for the protected network of wild lands.
The public seems to agree with this sentiment: In 2014, 75 percent of voters approved an initiative known as Amendment 1, which dedicates hundreds of millions of excise taxes each year into a trust fund for acquiring conservation areas, parks, and forests. However, only a small fraction of these funds have been invested in land protection since then.
In an interview, Galvano told National Geographic that protections for wildlife and their habitat are important and will be considered in the M-CORES project. The Florida Chamber of Commerce also supports the plan, saying it will boost the state’s economy.
Return of the panther
Panthers used to roam throughout the Southeast, from Louisiana to South Carolina, and all throughout the Florida peninsula. Aggressively hunted, they hung on only in the wetlands of South Florida. In 1967 they were listed as an endangered subspecies, by which time there were only about 20 left.
But thanks to conservation efforts, such as the protection of areas in the wildlife corridor and the construction of wildlife underpasses, they’ve rebounded to a population around 200—and in the last few years, have expanded their range northward.
Overall, the number one cause of death for panthers is collisions with vehicles. But a lack of habitat is really the biggest problem, and it indirectly leads to their second-leading cause of death: deadly fights over territory.
That’s why the area north of the Caloosahatchee is so important: It provides more room for the felines. Male panthers can range in home territories up to 200 square miles in size, an area nearly 10 times that of Manhattan.
It’s also crucial the cats move north because much of their southern range will likely be inundated by sea level rise in the next century, says Thomas Hoctor, a landscape ecologist at the University of Florida.
To help the big cats move around the state, more and more wildlife underpasses and warning signs have been built on roads throughout panther habitat, which may have helped reduce this year’s road mortalities—13 to date—as compared with 16 at this point in 2018, and 17 in 2017.
Brent Setchell, an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation who helps design and implement these underpasses, says these are a priority for new roads or roads undergoing construction. Since 1990, more than 50 wildlife underpasses have been added in his area, District 1, which encompasses much of the panther’s current range. “We’re trying to do our part here at DOT,” he says. M-CORES would, presumably, include underpasses as well, and they are listed as a consideration in the bill.
Jennifer Korn, a panther biologist who used to work for the state but now works for Johnson Engineering, a private company, stands next to a large underpass on State Road 80, which runs east and west just south of the Caloosahatchee. Just south of here are ranches with open land, which connects to the large contiguous area of protected panther habitat that includes Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest and, by virtue of yet more wildlife underpasses, reaches all the way to the Everglades.
It’s possible that the female seen north of the Caloosahatchee in 2016 at Babcock Ranch passed through here, says Korn, who wears panther-shaped earrings and waterproof knee-high cowboy boots. For her and other biologists, the idea of a toll road cutting through the cat’s territory doesn’t sit well.
“It blows my mind,” Korn says. “They want to go through the last areas of the state that aren’t developed. I think it’s pretty obvious to just about anyone that there shouldn’t be a road here.”
Kevin Godsea, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, says that roads and panthers aren’t “generally very compatible with each other.”
But “if they’re designed well, we can work with folks to protect areas, and that’s what we need to do.”
Wildlife-friendly design includes large underpasses as well as high fences to keep panthers off the roads and channel them to the passageways. Since dozens of these underpasses and fencing have been installed on I-75 east of Naples, also known as Alligator Alley, few panthers and bears have been killed on this road.
Up in the air
Viewed from an airplane, the shape and importance of the Florida wildlife corridor comes into view. Just outside of Labelle, a farming town about 30 miles east of Fort Myers, suburbs quickly recede to citrus groves and ranches, and to the north, several large stretches of agricultural land also provide ample space for black bears and panthers.
The corridor stretches north and northeast, through Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management area up to Avon Park Air Force Range, all the way to the headwaters of the Everglades, south of Orlando. To the north, the suburbs throw up a solid, impenetrable boundary, accentuated by I-4, a six-lane highway that runs southwest to Tampa.
This road is difficult to cross for animals. Recently, however, cameras captured photos of bobcats and otters moving through a wildlife underpass, widened and improved most recently in 2010, that helps animals make their way northwest to the Green Swamp, a large biome that has connections with the Gulf Coast. Considering panthers have been spotted in the area—two were killed a short distance down the road in 2006 and 2007—it stands to reason they could use the passageway. The DOT is also planning to build a wildlife overpass a few miles away to allow easier travel between the Green Swamp and the Peace River, an important wildlife habitat, Setchell says.
Ward, whose work has been funded by several grants from the National Geographic Society, has traversed the length and width of the Florida wildlife corridor, trekking more than 2,000 miles throughout the state. His journeys have taken him to special places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary—an old-growth cypress forest where panthers have been spotted and visitors can witness the weeks-long blooming of a rare and large ghost orchid. In Corkscrew he collaborated with photographer Mac Stone and biologist Peter Houlihan to suggest for the first time that these endangered flowers are pollinated by multiple species of moths, a finding bolstered by his work in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
More than 100 miles north of the refuge, in the midst of the wildlife corridor, rancher Cary Lightsey owns a sprawling cattle ranch. He opposes the M-CORES plan in part because it will cut through undeveloped yet valuable ranchlands. In his opinion, the project would mainly benefit large landowners with property abutting roads who are willing to sell (besides those in the construction and trucking industries).
“I haven’t met one person who’s for it,” says Lightsey, a very tall man who proudly shows off his ranch, which has been in his family since the mid-1800s. “I imagine I would have, like at church or something, but I haven’t.”
He welcomes the return of panthers to his land, because they are “meant to be here,” he says. He also thinks the cats will “help save Florida,” by giving people a reason to care about the land.
Panthers aside, he says it’s crucial in a time of rampant development to hold on to the ranching legacy of the area. “I’ve seen when ranchers sell their land,” he says, and the family is never happy about it. The Lightseys have protected nearly 90 percent of their property in conservation easements, in partnerships with governmental and environmental groups.
Legislation sponsor Galvano says that concerns about wildlife corridors, protecting ranchlands, and related issues will be hashed out during the upcoming task force meetings, and he stresses the need for new roads to alleviate congestion.
“People smarter than myself have identified the need to enhance our infrastructure at all levels including transportation corridors,” he says.
Adds Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, “In this divisive political environment, improving infrastructure is about one of the only government actions people can often agree on."
But the distinction between improving and building anew is a critical one: Many in urban planning circles advocate for beefing up and adding to existing roads, rather than starting fresh.
“Why not build where people live now?” says Lindsay Cross of Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental group.
The proposed timeline has struck some as short, with a final report expected in October 2020, and construction slated to begin by the end of 2022. Most road projects are not turned around this quickly, Hoctor says.
Those familiar with urban planning and development patterns say that the roads would certainly bring new construction to these wild areas.
“It would greatly increase development pressure in very rural ranchland landscape,” Hoctor says. “Instead of compatible landscapes, you’ll have subdivisions.”
Laura Germino is an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that advocates for farmworkers in and around Immokalee, a diverse town 20 miles south of Labelle. Her group opposes M-CORES because it wouldn’t benefit the community, she says.
“Farmworkers are already under pressure from the coast, with developments [spreading into agricultural areas], and people don’t want to be pushed out of their homes and have their livelihoods taken away,” she says.
Declaration of war
The Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force of 47 members includes six people from the nonprofits Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Florida, the Everglades Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Florida Wildlife Corridor, and 1000 Friends of Florida.
Several of these organizations openly opposed the bill to begin with, and other mainstream groups are refusing to participate to avoid lending credence to the operation. The Sierra Club is one of them; organizing manager Cris Costello likens their stance to a “declaration of war.”
This road, she says, “is the worst thing to be proposed for the environment in at least 20 years in Florida.”
Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney, urban planner, and Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says that the corridor areas in the undeveloped northwest and southwest don’t need any more roads—and thus the organization will not participate on the task force. “We have to draw a line in the sand.”
Others, such as Lauritsen, don’t want to come down hard on one side or the other before the process has begun. As with other participants, he feels it’s better to be heard and be a part of the discussion, than not be there.
“My hope is that the wildlife corridor will be recognized in the process as something critical to the state.”
Editor's note: Flights donated by LightHawk, an organization wherein pilots volunteer their time for people pursuing conservation projects, helped in the development of this article.