How a landmark bill and a tiny patch of land could save Florida’s panthers

BBeyond the dirt roads and swamps of the Florida Everglades lies a narrow, unremarkable strip of land that has taken on outsized importance in the battle to save the state’s critically endangered panthers. Just 11 miles (18 km) long and a mile wide, Chaparral Slough occupies a forgotten corner of southwest Florida, where cattle roam, cowboys still roam the prairie and birds of prey soar above. -above.

This expanse of ranch and wilderness was recently acquired as part of the state’s Florida Forever conservation program, which buys or pays landowners to preserve tracts of land rich in natural resources or habitat critical to survival. of endangered wildlife species. It’s a small but crucial part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a 17.7 million acre network of interconnected landscapes that allows many of the state’s 131 endangered animals, including panthers and bear, to move freely.

Lindsay Stevens, director of land protection in Florida at the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization involved in the project, says, “It’s important for panthers and other wildlife to have a protected corridor so they can move around and have genetic diversity to ensure the long term survival and health of their species, and Chaparral Slough is a very important piece of the puzzle.

Aerial view of Chaparral Slough, the 11-mile corridor critical to Florida panther protection.
An aerial view of Chaparral Slough, the 11-mile corridor critical to Florida panther protection. Photo: Carlton Ward Jr./Courtesy of Path of the Panther

Linking two much larger areas of unspoilt land to the north and south, the story of Chaparral Slough is also symbolic of a larger, undeniable truth: large-scale conservation takes time and money. Taxpayers paid $10.6m (£8.8m) for the land, with the owner – a ranching, cattle and timber company called Lykes Brothers – working alongside the Nature Conservancy for the maintain with guaranteed protections against its sale or development.

Negotiations, however, lasted eight years, and due to the unstable way Florida Forever is funded, using varying amounts of dollars allocated each year at the whim of the state legislature, the deal remained uncertain until at the time of its signature.

Fewer than 250 Florida panthers are still in the wild. So far this year, 25 people have been killed, the vast majority in collisions with vehicles. And as the mechanisms of government slowly turn, their survival becomes more and more perilous.

It’s one of the reasons wildlife groups in Florida are welcoming a potentially game-changing conservation bill: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Currently pending in Congress with bipartisan support, the bill could become law before the end of the year.

Proponents have called it the most significant wildlife legislation since the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). If passed, it will allocate $1.3 billion a year to help implement official state wildlife action plans (Swaps). A recent report pointed out that the ESA has been hampered by insufficient resources, although more than 1,300 species of plants and animals in the United States are endangered or threatened.

Florida wildlife officials don’t yet know what share the state is likely to receive, but some unfunded land acquisition projects, similar to Chaparral Slough, are included in the Swap and therefore eligible for the money. .

Stevens says it can’t happen soon enough: “It was in 2014 that we first proposed the Chaparral Slough project to the state using funds from Florida Forever and, like many things in the conservation, it just takes time, patience and tenacity to have these projects fall together.

“The Nature Conservancy has been working there for several decades now, to help build a contiguous corridor of panthers so they can move from South Florida, where they live on protected land that the state and federal government and d ‘other partners have established, and disperse. in central Florida.

Florida black bear peeking from behind a tree
The Florida black bear is another species that benefits from a protected wildlife corridor. Photograph: Steve Paddon/Alamy

The hope is that additional funds from the federal government can accelerate parts of the Florida Forever program, which has so far acquired 352,000 hectares (870,000 acres) since its inception in 2001.

It can also help soften the piecemeal approach, which is born out of necessity. Most panther land is privately owned, largely agricultural – and not all owners want to sell.

“If the puzzle to your left isn’t working, in terms of ownership, and the owner isn’t interested in working with you, then you swerve and go to the right, and with enough tenacity and patience, the pieces start to fall into place,” Stevens says.

Lykes Brothers is an enthusiastic partner. It is one of Florida’s oldest and largest land companies, with a diverse portfolio including: livestock and other agricultural businesses; forestry; hunt; and the management of water resources on 151,000 hectares of ranches. It is also one of the largest citrus producers in the state.

“We operate with respect for family and community values ​​and respect for the land, and we are now in our fifth generation, which is quite phenomenal,” says Cari Roth, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Lykes. “With Chaparral Slough, I think the people involved with Florida Forever have always viewed it as a place that deserved permanent conservation action. It was really more about the availability of funds and the legislature, governor, and cabinet that must approve all Florida Forever purchases.

Roth says she’s seen more enthusiasm from the state in recent years and more dollars spent, but overall the program is still unpredictable, affecting small landowners who are ready to sell.

“A person from Tallahassee would come and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to buy your land, but in the future because I don’t really have the money right now.’ And, you know, that ignores the economic pressures on landowners in rural Florida,” she says.

Cattle driven on the Chaparral Slough
The approval of Chaparral Slough as a conservation easement provides an alternative to development and allows ranching to continue. Photo: Carlton Ward Jr./Courtesy of Path of the Panther

“Lykes is a big landowner and we may not have the same kind of pressures, but farming, and farming of any kind, is tough. The margins are not large. If the desire is there but there is no money, then the interest somehow decreases.

Funding has been a common conundrum in almost all Florida Forever negotiations. The program began with fanfare and an annual allocation of $300 million, largely from land stamp duties, but economic headwinds turned into a recession and falling real estate values, and politicians decided that taxpayers’ money was needed elsewhere.

“When Florida’s economy recovered from this economic downturn, funding for this program did not work out,” says Meredith Budd, director of regional policy at the Florida Wildlife Federation. His group is one of the loudest voices in the state for panthers and other endangered species, including the Florida black bear, burrowing owl, American eagle, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, various herons and other waders and birds of prey.

“The funding has been catastrophic. Historically, that’s $300 million a year under Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2019 we received about $30 million and in 2020 about $90 million. Our entire state budget is over $92 billion. So it seems the legislature forgot about Florida Forever,” she said.

A Florida panther lurks in the brush: this year, 25 people have died in collisions with vehicles.
A Florida panther lurks in the brush: this year, 25 people have died in collisions with vehicles. Photography: Tim Donovan/Florida Fish and Wildlife

It’s a charge that recently re-elected Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis denies. “Acquiring land for conservation and recreation is a top priority for my administration,” DeSantis said in August, as he announced the $56 million acquisition of 8,000 acres across seven properties, the largest in the state for several years.

Stevens is hopeful about the future if the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passes. “We have a science-based list of land protection priorities that has been developed through the [Florida Forever] program, so the vehicle is there.

“The projects are there, they are already prioritized. The funding will just help us, you know, make hay while the sun is shining.

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