Donning a hard hat and safety vest, I stepped onto the sand where bears and panthers might also leave their footprints in the future. A large wildlife crossing structure on Interstate-4, near Disney World, is under construction. The crossing represents just one of limited spots where wildlife have any hope of safe passage across this major roadway barrier.
With a current population of only 120-230, the current survival plan for the endangered Florida panther stipulates that securing additional habitat to grow the population — and the corridors to connect them to maintain genetic flow — is essential. A panther’s territory is fixed, as they roam to find mates and food; as an umbrella species, protecting panther habitat can also protect other wildlife that inhabit the same lands.
By the time an individual panther would reach I-4 (and there have been some roaming males, though most of the panther population is south of the Caloosahatchee River), it would need to be lucky enough to have successfully traversed past dozens of roadways and all-consuming development eliminating portions of their home ranges.
Southwest Florida, where the current breeding range for the Florida panther struggles to persist, is already a hotspot for roadkills. These vehicle-panther collisions are the top documented cause of mortality. Every year 20-30 panthers are hit and killed by vehicles.
In Glades and Highlands counties, a highly imperiled subpopulation of Florida black bears, isolated from other bears, also struggles to safely traverse roadways. It was here, with the wandering of a bear known as “M34,” that inspired the Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative. The need to save wild Florida and provide a green infrastructure for people and wildlife alike, from the Everglades to the Panhandle and beyond, was equally memorialized by the state legislature in 2021.
Standing at the new crossing, it was easy to see and hear (with the deafening drone of non-stop traffic) why roadways are so deadly to wildlife and can fragment populations. It’s rewarding to see a positive stride towards conservation come to fruition, and to feel the momentum brought forth by the state and federal agencies acknowledging the need for wildlife corridors and connectivity for all of Florida’s wildlife species.
But everywhere is the reminder that for every two steps forward there is one step back, and that our pace of action must be quickened. The same week I visited the crossing, one of the only known female Florida panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River was killed by a vehicle strike in Glades County. With the loss of this panther, panther recovery is potentially further out of reach.
In order to protect the panther’s core source population, while continuing to proactively plan for Florida panther expansion via a statewide wildlife corridor, the following key steps are needed:
- State and federal agencies should deny development and roadway proposals that are inappropriately situated within listed species habitat, degrade public lands, or fragment green spaces. For example, new developments in eastern Collier County (such as Bellmar) are within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and should not be permitted. In the past, bad projects encountering permitting hurdles or denials have resulted in landowners becoming willing sellers for public acquisition or conservation easements.
- Prioritize and fund the land acquisition and underpass structures needed to resolve panther roadkill hot spots in southwest Florida, and to preserve the ability for Florida panthers to travel up to and past I-4 into north Florida.
- Tell your local, state, and federal elected officials and agency representatives that wildlife habitat is not only critical to these species, but also our quality of life, clean water, agricultural and wildland recreation needs.
Though ambitious, it’s the only way to ensure that if we build it, they will come.
Amber Crooks is the Environmental Policy Manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.