panther crossing

USFWS photo

A Florida panther safely crosses under a busy highway.

As the human population of Florida expands, we are taking up an ever-greater proportion of the state for “people stuff” — homes, commercial development, roads, etc. It’s pretty obvious that every acre that we build something on is an acre that gets subtracted from what wild Florida used to be. But how big of a problem is that, really?

Today, Florida still has about 15.5 million acres of “natural communities” remaining. These are lands that have not been converted to some other intense use. Some are still in a more or less natural state, such as the 5.8 million acres of wildlife management areas. These places still show the fingerprints of human meddling, but at least they’re not homebuilding projects.

Others are light-use agriculture, such as low-density cattle operations. In places like this, nature doesn’t get free rein, but you will find a lot of wild things that are missing from urban and suburban areas.

Florida’s land area is about 34.5 million acres, so that means about 45 percent of the state is in a natural or semi-natural condition. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But there’s one big problem: That 45 percent is broken up into pieces of various sizes. Some are large. Everglades National Park and the Babcock/Webb WMA are good examples. Others are much smaller; some less than a few acres.

Even some fairly good-sized tracts are less useful as wildlife habitat due to odd shapes. Think about trying to build on a quarter-acre lot that’s 25 feet wide and 400 feet long. You technically have enough space to construct a house, but really you can’t even set up a shed once you consider the required setbacks.

The biggest issue, though, is habitat fragmentation. Imagine an undeveloped piece of land three miles wide and 10 miles long. Now, build an interstate right down the middle, longways. The highway is narrow and doesn’t take up a huge amount of space. Even with the median and rights-of-way, the highway only takes up about 500 acres — less than three percent of the land area.

But it has an outsized effect because of how efficiently it divides the land area into two pieces. Many animals will be too fearful to cross. Many that are not will be killed in the attempt. Even flying animals can be blocked. Hot asphalt absorbs the suns energy and creates an microclimate several degrees warmer. That alone will prevent some birds and insects from flying across. Smaller ones will find unfriendly flight conditions due to updrafting hot air.

Of course, it’s not just roads that fragment habitats. In many cases, nothing so dramatic is required. Fences have proven to be habitat dividers for hoofed animals. Built to keep in livestock, they also prevent animals from traveling along migration routes used for thousands of generations.

Wildebeests in Africa have died en masse of starvation and dehydration when new fences blocked the paths they’ve always used to reach seasonal food and water supplies. Supporting a large herd is impossible under such conditions, so herds are smaller. But smaller herds are less effective at defending against predators, and their numbers are on a downward spiral. The American bison faced similar problems and never recovered.

Many species are dependent on a specific type of habitat. Here in Southwest Florida, the scrub jay is a great example. Florida’s only endemic bird (found here and nowhere else) is very selective about where it lives. The dry scrub it requires is also excellent for development — no low-lying wetlands to drain or fill, only a moderate amount of vegetation to clear — and a lot of it was turned into homesites before anyone realized the birds couldn’t survive anywhere else.

Today, scrub jays are a highly fragmented species. While there are thousands around the state, they’re concentrated in small pockets of scrub. Think of them as being on tiny islands scattered across open ocean. They can’t leave their islands because they can’t live elsewhere. But if they stay, eventually inbreeding will do them in.

The solution to this problem is one that’s well known to wildlife managers: The habitats must be made contiguous. One of the buzzwords of modern conservation is corridors. A corridor is an area of suitable habitat that connects two larger areas, providing a way for animals to travel from one to the other.

One example is wildlife transits beneath highways. These have been built in many areas, including in the Everglades. Automatic cameras have proven that they work. Within weeks of one opening on I-75 in Collier County, cams had already photographed black bears and panthers using the underpass. Smaller animals use them as well, allowing the entire ecosystem to benefit from a solution developed for charismatic species such as big cats.

Locally, we have a wider-scale example: The Babcock/Webb WMA. This is 66,000 acres of semi-natural marshes and pine flatwoods. That’s good — but even better, it’s bordered on the east by the 67,000-acre Babcock Ranch Preserve. To the south of the preserve is the 5,600-acre Bob Janes Preserve. The Webb also connects to a 15,000-acre tract on the west side of U.S. 41 called the Yucca Pens Unit. That land reaches to Burnt Store Road, and on the other side of the road is Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.

Now, there are still some chunks of land that need to be bought to make this truly one contiguous area, but the good news is those undeveloped parcels still exist. As it stands, these conserved areas represents some 240 square miles of quality wildlife habitat, spread out from Punta Gorda to Alva.

It sounds huge — until you realize that a single male Florida panther claims 40 to 75 square miles as his exclusive territory. This massive tract is enough space for three to six male panthers (females’ territories are about half as large and overlap with males).

Nature did not evolve to be constrained or boxed in. Today’s wildlife managers and conservationists understand this and are working to repair the damage done by our fathers and grandfathers. Sadly, Florida’s wilderness will never be more than a shadow of what it once was. But we can take heart in the fact that it still exists at all.

Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.

Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@
WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.

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