Seeing the elusive Florida panther akin to seeing a ghost

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Carlton Ward Jr.
CLEWISTON — Here’s one of those extremely rare photos he was able to make with a camera trap: A male Florida panther crosses State Route 80 outside LaBelle using a wildlife underpass.

LAKE PLACID — The panther’s habitat extends along lonely pathways through much of rural Southwest Florida — Glades, Hendry and Okeechobee counties included — up into the center of the state.

Florida state, federal and private wildlife agencies and organizations have made great strides in working to protect parts of it from development with public preserve land purchases and wildlife conservation easements across private farms, groves, ranches and other properties spanning those and nearby counties, as attendees of the recent conference learned.

But more innovations like those easements and cooperative programs with ranchers and other private landowners need to be found. One such advancement is the new State Road 80 overpass between LaBelle and Clewiston, which is actually an underpass meant for animals, not humans, built explicitly to keep wildlife safe from vehicles — the top killer of panthers.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Carlton Ward Jr./National Geographic Image Collection
Lara Cusack, lead panther vet for the FWC, examines a young male killed recently by a vehicle in eastern Naples.

That’s one place where Carlton Ward Jr., original advocate of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, has had some success in capturing “ghost sightings,” as they’re called in the current issue of The Nature Conservancy’s magazine. Babcock Ranch is another one nearby. Lykes Ranch land in Glades and Highlands counties, Black Boar Ranch in Hendry and Cypress Creek Grove in Glades County are among the private lands where, working with TNC and others, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have secured conservation easements to protect the panthers’ habitat and customary routes.

One of their biggest victories, which they seek to replicate, came in late 2012. With FWS financing through the FWC and help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several Florida state agencies, the TNC was able to finalize the purchase of a 1,200-acre ranch just south of the Caloosahatchee River whose developer owner was being foreclosed upon — a day before it was to be sold on the Glades County Courthouse steps. A local rancher bought the land with conservation easements attached that prevent future development and ensure it will remain in low-intensity agriculture or as a ranchland in perpetuity.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Carlton Ward Jr.
An aerial view of the wildlife crossing along State Road 80 near LaBelle.

Four years later, camera traps caught proof of the conservationists’ goal, that a breeding Florida panther population would establish itself north of the Caloosahatchee River, which had been seen as a natural barrier to the expansion of habitat needed to eventually — hopefully — reestablish three distinct breeding populations that would let the panther be removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List.

This year the Florida Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill ordering FDOT to consider building new toll roads, including one from Naples in Collier to Polk County, which would sprawl across the wildlife corridor. The TNC has been able to get a voice on the task force that is examining the possibility, setting up its next skirmish in the battle for the panther’s survival.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
A Carlton Ward panther photo is featured on The Nature Conservancy Magazine cover for the Winter 2019 issue.

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