When Joe Guthrie tries to explain why a statewide wildlife corridor is important, he starts like this:
“Imagine you’re a bear. A bear living in Collier County. And you’ve been out-competed for resources. You need to move to survive, so where do you go?”
Once upon a time, that answer was simple: anywhere you wanted to go.
Today, with developments and roads crisscrossing more and more of Florida, the answer to that question has become increasingly complex. Sure, state and federal agencies have worked diligently to set aside protected lands, but those protected areas are mere shards scattered haphazardly across the sunshine state’s broad landmass mosaic.
Shards and fragments that are becoming increasingly isolated from one another.
Or are they?
As you read this, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is traipsing through the woods, trying to prove that Florida’s green spaces are in fact connected. The team of bear biologist Joe Guthrie, photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr., conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus will traverse more than 1,000 miles from the soggy swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, north to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia.
The team is paddling, biking and hiking for 100 days, through both public and private lands, documenting its journey and spreading the word on why connectivity matters, whether you’re a bear, a Florida panther or a human.
“If you have these areas of wilderness without connections between them, if you don’t have those connections you essentially have a zoo without bars,” says Chuck Collins, regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “It’s important for biodiversity to have these connections.”
Scientists and environmentalists have long touted the need for biodiversity within an ecosystem. The idea that species within an area are dependent on other species within that same area is nothing new. But genetic diversity within a species is important too.
With increased genetic diversity comes better tolerance to disease, better reproductive survival rates, and more genetic variation, which ultimately translates to better adaptability. It’s the reason marrying your cousin is outlawed in some states, and the reason species like the cheetah, who are down to tiny numbers, face an uphill battle to repopulate.
But if you’re a bear, separated from other bears by highways, condo complexes and shopping malls, finding others — besides your den mates — to breed with can be tough. And so, bears wander. They wander into neighborhoods, they amble across ranches and occasionally, tragically, they end up in front of passing tractor-trailers on the highway.
Exactly how Florida black bears roam from one spot to the next isn’t entirely known. Collaring, tracking and mapping where bears move and why was the lifework of David Maehr, Guthrie’s esteemed graduate professor at the University of Kentucky.
Maehr was tragically killed in a small plane crash in 2008, while conducting an aerial survey of the Florida black bear habitat in Highlands County. But during his time working at Archbold Research Station and surrounding Highlands County, studying the bear population on both public and private lands, Maehr laid important groundwork for the expedition that’s currently trekking through the state.
“Maehr and I studied under the same professor, Larry Harris, at the University of Florida,” says Tom Hoctor, cofounder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Initiative. “Larry, along with another Ph.D. graduate student, Reed Noss, were the ones to push the need for functionally connected conservation areas across the state of Florida, starting back in the mid-1980s and their work had a strong influence on both Dave and myself. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the work Larry and Reed did in the 1980s, there almost certainly would not be something called the Florida Wildlife Corridor today.”
In fact, the whole Florida Wildlife Corridor Initiative team — both those currently on the expedition and those working behind the scenes to make the expedition happen — are quick to lob any credit for this project off of their own shoulders and into someone else’s court.
“We’re not really doing anything new,” claims the team’s photojournalist, Carlton Ward Jr., saying, “This really is just the end result of a 25-year process, and we’re just trying to bring awareness to it.”
The group says that without the work of state, local and federal agencies, along with initiatives like the Florida Forever Program and land trusts including the Conservation Trust For Florida and The Nature Conservancy, taking up this trek would have been nearly impossible.
But the other thing they credit for making the expedition a reality is neither a person nor an advocacy group. Instead, it’s a bear.
Bear number 34, who was tagged and monitored by Guthrie and a few of his colleagues at the University of Kentucky, provided critical information that made the concept of a totally connected wildlife greenway more concrete (or, well, less concrete).
“There was one bear in particular that we tagged, and he traveled all the way from Highlands County to the Interstate 4 corridor. These kinds of movements helped us understand that these landscapes are still connected. It was one of the things that gave us some encouragement that we could make this trek a reality,” says Guthrie.
If bear 34 could traverse land that wasn’t necessarily set-aside as conservation space, then so too could the team.
But it’s one thing to hike across the Everglades and Big Cypress, two huge tracts of public land. It’s another thing entirely to travel across hundreds of miles of private property.
Yet that’s exactly what the team is currently doing. Amazingly, though the journey itself has taken two and a half years to plan, they’ve met almost no resistance in gaining access to any of private ranches they need to cross to complete the trip.
Once again, the theme comes back to connectivity. The expedition never would have known which ranchers to ask (and perhaps more importantly, which not to ask) if not for some well-made connections.
The credit for this is in part due to Maehr, who always worked closely with ranchers in his research in Highlands County and the areas near Archbald Research Station. But it’s also thanks to Ward, who specializes in conservation photography. Ward takes a panoramic view of the word conservation; not only has he dedicated his life to documenting threatened flora and fauna, but he’s also worked extensively to document a vanishing way of life — the life of the Florida cowboy.
“I’m an eighth-generation Floridian, I grew up in a ranching family,” says Ward, whose 2009 book, “Florida Cowboys,” won a silver medal at the Florida Book Awards. “Ranchers have a natural interest in conservation, they depend on the land, and they realize that conservation is a key tool for protecting their land.”
Just as conservation is a key tool for ranchers looking to protect their land long-term, it’s also an integral piece for creating what the expedition calls “critical linkages.”
Critical linkages, as described by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Initiative, are the pieces of private land that link the public lands together. And they’re maybe the most important part of the whole network.
“It’s critical that we have agriculture and ranchers on board because they own the bulk of the land that would provide these critical linkages,” says Collins, the FWC regional director. “Public agencies would never be able to buy all the land necessary to link current conservation areas together, and even if they could buy it, managing it would be cost prohibitive.”
Leisa Priddy, owner of JB Ranch in Immokalee, is one of the private landowners in support of the wildlife corridor, allowing the expedition to cross her land last Wednesday.
“I think this expedition is important to ranchers and property owners in general because it spotlights how important our lands are in all of this,” she said. According to Priddy, who is also a commissioner for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee, she sees panthers and other critters on her land regularly, which she doesn’t mind, so long as they don’t wreak too much havoc on her herd of cracker cattle.
“Sure, we have some interactions with them that aren’t always positive, but as long as it doesn’t negatively impact our operation, I don’t mind them being on our land.” Priddy adds, “I don’t care how many times you’ve seen a panther before, each time I see one it still takes my breath away.”
And not only does seeing a Florida panther or a Florida black bear take your breath away, it also generally bodes well for the health and well-being of the entire ecosystem.
“Bears and panthers are what’s considered an umbrella species. What’s good for them is also good for turkeys or rabbits,” says Collins.
Again, the theme of connectivity comes up.
“We’ve been at this for about two weeks and the thing we’ve already seen demonstrated a couple of times is this theme of connectivity,” says Ward. “There’s clearly a lot of synergy within the Everglades watershed, we’ve been through Picayune Strand and Fakahatchee Strand, and the Everglades and in each it’s about restoring the water flow and restoring water quality. It’s all connected.”
The next step now is to connect their journey to the public.
“It’s about finding the political will and the momentum from the public to make it clear that things like this are worth being funded,” says initiative co-founder Tom Hoctor.
The team’s filmmaker, Elam Stoltzfus, adds, “That’s why we’re documenting the entire journey. Using social media, we can bring the importance of this expedition in front of people all over Florida.”
You can follow the expedition on Twitter and view photos from their travels each day on Facebook and Flickr. Once the journey is complete, they’re planning a two-hour documentary to showcase the whole thing, and along the way they’re stopping to do media interviews for articles like this one. It’s all part of their multi-prong approach to trying to connect the public to their mission.
And it’s an attempt to answer that age-old question: if a foot — or four sets of feet — falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?
The answer, of course, like everything else, depends on connectivity.