If completed, the Florida Wildlife Corridor would protect 18 million acres of nearly contiguous habitat in one of the nation’s biologically richest states
In the Florida Panhandle, the Aucilla River Delta (above) empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The delta and its surrounding lands are key links in the northernmost section of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. A female Florida panther and two kittens (below) traverse a trail through Babcock Ranch Preserve, 140 miles from Miami and the farthest north female panthers have been seen since the mid-1970s.
CARLTON WARD JR. BRINGS his dusty Toyota Land Cruiser to a sudden stop. “There. Right there,” says the Florida-based conservationist and wildlife photographer, pointing to a spot along the dirt road into Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Located about 30 minutes east of Naples, Florida, the sanctuary is a 13,450-acre haven of wet prairie, marsh, pine flatwoods and North America’s largest old-growth bald cypress forest. “That’s where I saw my first Florida panther,” he says.
An eighth-generation Floridian who’s spent much of his life exploring the state’s swamps and woodlands, Ward did not see that first panther until the summer of 2018, when he was in his 40s. That’s not surprising. Denizens of dense forests and swamps, Florida panthers are elusive predators that do not want to be seen.
They are also rare. Panthers—also known as cougars or pumas—once ranged across the entire southeastern United States. Today, the breeding population of this puma subspecies is found only at Florida’s southwestern tip. Relentlessly shot by hunters beginning in the 1800s, they were nearly extinct by the 1950s. “They retreated to the southern tip of Florida in part because it was the last place they could go to hide from all the humans trying to hunt them,” says Jennifer Korn, a panther biologist for Johnson Engineering. Federally listed as endangered in 1973, the Florida panther now faces many other threats, including disease, low genetic diversity, a decline in prey and, especially, habitat loss and fragmentation. Only about 200 Florida panthers remain in the wild.
Panthers are far from the only wildlife finding refuge solely in the Sunshine State. With a climate ranging from subtropical to tropical in the south, “Florida is an ecological jewel,” says Amanda Moore, a Florida resident and Gulf Program director for the National Wildlife Federation. The state’s coastlines, swamps, springs, pine forests, prairies and other habitats support many thousands of plant and animal species, at least 269 of them endemic, or found nowhere else.
For the past 18 years, Ward has been traveling throughout the state, documenting this rich natural heritage with his camera. Funded in part by the National Geographic Society (NGS), he and his team have captured thousands of images of Florida’s ecosystems and their inhabitants, from panthers and black bears to snail kites and eastern indigo snakes. To make images of the most-elusive wildlife, they set up dozens of unattended cameras outfitted with infrared trip sensors triggered when animals pass. They regularly return to the same sites to see what these camera traps have photographed.
Since 2010, most of Ward’s photography has coalesced around an ambitious public education and outreach campaign he launched the previous year. Its goal is to promote the Florida Wildlife Corridor: 18 million acres of connected undeveloped land—from wetlands in the south to pineland forests of the Panhandle—crucial to the state’s wildlife.
The concept of connecting Florida’s habitats is decades old. Ward credits, in particular, Larry D. Harris, a late University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation professor whose 1984 book, The Fragmented Forest, challenged traditional thinking about how to manage woodlands. To protect wildlife that depend on large, connected habitats, Harris proposed alternatives to conventional timber harvesting practices that isolate small patches of land. The pioneering ecologist warned that, at the pace of Florida’s growth, nearly all remaining blocks of habitat would become fragmented and surrounded by development, leading to massive species loss and diminished ecological function.
With support from Harris and fellow biologist Reed Noss, Harris’ student Tom Hoctor, now director of the University of Florida’s Center for Landscape Conservation Planning, helped create the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, a database of connected public and private conservation lands. In 1997, the state launched a greenways program inspired by the database, which now guides efforts to create the corridor.
The Florida panther has become the symbol of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Like most wild animals, panthers need to move in order to survive. Yet habitats are increasingly fragmented by new housing, roads, fences, energy facilities and other barriers. As a result, wildlife are struggling to reach food, water, shelter, mates and breeding sites. Lost habitat connections are particularly a problem for animals such as the panther. A single male panther “needs 200 square miles of habitat, so the only way to save the species is multiple adjacent lands working together as one connected habitat,” says Ward.
So far, 10 million acres of the corridor have been protected, but another crucial 8 million acres remain. Meanwhile, the urgency is increasing. Florida is one of the ten fastest-growing states in the country, with more than 1,100 people moving in every day.
But it is not too late. “Despite being appalled at what Florida has lost in terms of its natural resources and wildlife, I’m amazed that we still have the potential for a viable, connected wildlife corridor in Florida,” says Hilary Swain, the executive director of Archbold Biological Station, a conservation and research institute that is a key partner in the corridor project.
Swain emphasizes that the corridor helps not only top predators like panthers but also much smaller wildlife species. “By protecting habitat connectivity for species that need large areas, you automatically bring along entire ecosystems on your coattails,” she says. “Everything from microbes to mice are embraced within the corridor.” That includes many of the state’s more than 600 imperiled species of plants and animals.
Like panthers, bears also need large stretches of connected habitat, as Ward learned when he began a project to photograph the animals in the mid-2000s. Once declining, the Florida black bear—a subspecies of American black bear—is officially considered recovered, with more than 4,000 bears now roaming the state. Yet the animals need plenty of room to move. A single adult female requires 15 square miles, while a single male may spread out over 60 square miles—habitat increasingly tough to come by in the rapidly developing state.
In 2010, a radio-collared young male bear known as M34 brought that lesson home. For eight months the bear stayed within a short range of where he was collared in 2009. But in May the following year, he set out on an epic journey at the start of the breeding season, traveling more than 500 miles up and down the heart of Florida over the course of two months. Although the trip eventually was thwarted by development—especially an interstate highway cutting across Central Florida—and the bear ended up not far from where he’d started, Ward and other conservationists saw potential. “M34 showed us that he had no issue cruising through what’s still green and connected: ranches, groves, farms,” says Ward. “He clarified for us the need for a wildlife corridor.”
According to Moore, who serves on the board of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation—a nonprofit that promotes the corridor and facilitates communication among partners—the project’s participants “use a strategic, science-based process to identify the critical missing linkages between existing protected areas.”
In 2021, the initiative got a boost from a legislative campaign led by Ward and his team at the conservation group Wildpath in collaboration with NGS and local partners. As a result of these efforts, the Florida House and Senate passed, and the governor signed, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in June. While the law itself does not conserve land, it directs the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to “encourage and promote investments in areas that protect and enhance the Florida Wildlife Corridor.” In the two years since, nearly 150,000 acres have been approved for permanent conservation, and the 2023 Florida state budget allots $850 million for the corridor, with an additional $100 million of recurring funding.
Because nearly all remaining 8 million acres needed to complete the corridor are privately owned, landowners—particularly ranchers—are key to success. Like wildlife, many of these ranchers’ traditional livelihoods are threatened by development. While Florida’s interior was once predominantly cattle country, with livestock sharing green spaces with native wildlife, many ranching families sell their land when developers make attractive offers. To benefit both ranchers and wildlife, much current funding for the corridor goes to purchasing conservation easements. The easements create financial incentives for property owners to stay on the land if they agree to management practices that ensure the long-term health of the habitat.
Early on in the project, Ward, whose family roots are in ranching, set out on a 100-day trek that visited nearly 30 Florida cattle ranches. “It was like a path of opportunity,” he recalls. “We got to meet these ranchers and ask if they wanted to be a part of this project. There is no wildlife corridor without the conservation of farms and ranches,” he says.
Elton Langford, an 11th generation cattle rancher, has been convinced. Today, he still runs 500 head of cattle on Babcock Ranch, a large master-planned community some 15 miles northeast of Fort Myers that has left 90 percent of its 100,000 acres undeveloped. Langford, who worked on the land long before it was sold, laments many recent changes. But he also believes that the property—a vital link in the Florida Wildlife Corridor—could be a model for future development. “You’re not gonna show me a developer that comes in and buys thousands of acres of land and don’t try to put a home on every inch of it,” Langford says. “But out here, they left most of it to continue raising cattle and as green space for wildlife.”
In 2016, scientists visiting the Babcock Ranch Preserve documented the first female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1975—proof to corridor supporters that if wildlife have access to connected habitat, they will use it. Earlier this year and an hour south of Babcock, Ward was checking camera traps he’d set up in Corkscrew Swamp in 2022 specifically to search for panthers. There was nothing much to see until he reached the final frames on his last camera—and saw a female Florida panther with two kittens. The photo had been snapped just the week before.
For Ward, discovering the image was thrilling but sobering. To survive, those kittens will need to travel and find territories in undeveloped habitat. If they make it, their kittens will require the same. “There is no recovery for the Florida panther,” stresses Ward, “without protection of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.”
Both the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), an NWF affiliate, have supported the Florida Wildlife Corridor since the project’s start. “In a state with accelerated growth, the science-based corridor helps us protect wild places before it’s too late,” says FWF president and CEO Sarah Gledhill. Nationwide, NWF pursues multiple strategies to help wildlife move between habitats fragmented by highways, housing and other barriers. See nwf.org/corridors.
Isaac Eger is a writer based in Florida. Carlton Ward Jr. is a Florida-based wildlife photographer and conservationist.
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