Florida Just Enacted Sweeping Law to Protect Its Wildlife Corridors and Save Panthers

From Everglades to Okefenokee, Florida legislatures just created one of the biggest wildlife corridors in the developed world with a $400 million funding seed.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, signed into law by Gov. DeSantis, ensures that animals can travel—without seeing a car or a human, from the Everglades Estuary to the borders with Georgia and Alabama—while protecting existing and new conservation areas, securing natural resources, and more.

Between the beach-bustle of Miami, Daytona, Fort Lauderdale, and elsewhere, and the lazy waters of the Gulf of Mexico on the western coast lies a mosaic of swamps, pastures, rivers, farmland, and forest. Among these varied ecosystems, 700 imperiled species live in habitat that may be owned privately, as state recreation areas, and as federally-protected wilderness.

The total bipartisan support the bill received, typical of American conservation legislation, has seen $300 million secured to protect these varied ecosystems, as well as to buy new conservation areas or to secure conservation easements—a subsidized incentive to conserve a particular feature on private acreage.

Another $100 million was earmarked for the general conservation program called Florida Forever, the largest state-controlled pubic land acquisition program of its kind in the U.S.

For many species this will be a windfall, especially for the iconic Florida panther, which must roam wide and far in search of food, and to secure genetic stability.

Panther path

The endangered cats almost went extinct during the 1970s until Texas provided an infusion of genes from their mountain lions. The last remaining sub-species of the puma in the Eastern U.S. is maybe the most endangered big cat on Earth.

National Geographic reports that a panther in 2016 was found north of Lake Okeechobee for the first time in 43 years, suggesting the species is reclaiming some of its previous habitat in the more northern areas of Florida. The further north panthers in the south can travel, the better for the species’ genetics, which have been damaged heavily by inbreeding.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Commission—a conservation non-profit that was engaged for years in developing the idea of the Corridor and how to define it and write it into law—was set up in large part by dedicated photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and some of his friends.

For those who want to truly understand the magnitude of importance for Florida wildlife which the secured Corridor represents, they need only watch the excellent 17-minute documentary The Last Green Thread produced by the Commission, which highlights the journey up the Corridor by Ward Jr. and his biologist friends Joe Guthrie and Mallory Dimmitt.

Ward Jr. also set up the Path of the Panther, a conservation initiative supported by National Geographic to try and save Florida’s state animal.

Path of the Panther highlights the dangers posed to the cat including genetic isolation and traffic collisions, and gathered priceless data on population numbers and movements through camera trapping.

In his documentary, Ward Jr. at one point explains that moving up the headwaters of the Everglades to the I-4 highway, there is a moment when the Corridor narrows to perhaps 200 meters before being stopped dead in its tracks northward by the I-4, forcing any migrating animals to trace the highway’s east-west path for miles before finding a possible crossing point.

The new Florida Wildlife Corridor Act specifically designates doing all of the following: “maintaining wildlife access to the habitats needed to allow for migration of and genetic exchange amongst regional wildlife populations,” as well as “preventing fragmentation of wildlife habitats,” and “providing for wildlife crossings for the protection and safety of wildlife.”

“This gives me a lot of hope for the future of land conservation in Florida,” Ward Jr. told National Geographic.

For those who want to learn more, hop over to the Commission’s website, watch their documentaries, and pour over their extremely detailed maps of the Corridor.