NAPLES — A deal has been reached to prop open a travel corridor for endangered Florida panthers to move beyond their increasingly cramped quarters in South Florida, a conservation group and wildlife agencies announced Tuesday.
A public-private partnership engineered the complicated, $6.7 million deal that puts 1,278 acres south of the Caloosahatchee River in Glades County under conservation easements to keep the land a working cattle ranch.
“This is really an example as we look forward to what the future of conservation is going to look like,” said Shelly Lakly, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida, which spearheaded the deal.
Panther trackers have had their eyes on that stretch of riverbank for years as male panthers have used it to venture into new territory while a growing population runs out of room in South Florida.
As recently as 2008, though, former owner American Prime pursued plans to build a subdivision on the land, cutting off the route. The plans withered under the weight of regulatory review and a failing housing market.
A series of transactions to put the land in conservation status was completed just in time to prevent the parcel from going to a foreclosure auction.
“It’s been the key piece along the river that has eluded us for years,” said Kevin Godsea, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Collier County.
The land is at the northern end of a so-called “dispersal zone” that wildlife officials have identified as the last, best chance to connect land north of the river to protected lands in the Okaloacoochee Slough in Lee County and farther south in Collier.
Scientists see the connection as crucial to bringing the Florida panther back from the brink of extinction, but most of the rest of the 28,000-acre dispersal zone isn’t in conservation status.
“It (the protected tract) is a piece of a larger puzzle we’re trying to solve for recovery of a wide-ranging species like the panther,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land. “The puzzle hasn’t been completely solved.”
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Florida panther recovery goals call for establishing three populations of the endangered wildcats, each with about 250 animals in them. Scientists say between 100 and 160 panthers remain in the wild, mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River.
So far, no female panthers have crossed the river though a trail camera captured an image of a female panther and two kittens just a few miles south of the former American Prime tract.
Florida business records show the new owner, Long Ranger LLC, is managed by Dwayne House, who has other ties to Southwest Florida’s cattle industry.
The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the federal Department of Agriculture, will manage two different conservation easements over the land.
The Nature Conservancy easement forbids subdividing the parcel, prohibits structures other than fences and allows hunting, said Angela Klug, director of real estate for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. The other easement will guide wetland restoration projects across 718 acres.
The ranching entity’s share of the cost of the land was $1.5 million, which was matched by $1.5 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and $2 million from The Nature Conservancy, according to Tuesday’s announcement. The Natural Resources Conservation Service bought its easement for $1.5 million.
Another $200,000 came from Walmart, through its Acres for America program, a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Lakly, with The Nature Conservancy, said the group has pledged to raise $8 million to protect another 7,300 acres in the dispersal zone in the next five years at an estimated total cost of $28 million.
A public-private partnership has protected a key piece of Florida panther habitat along the Caloosahatchee River in Glades County after years of being on conservation groups' wish list.
A series of transactions and conservation easements were completed just in time to prevent the 1,278-acre American Prime property from going to a foreclosure auction, groups and agencies involved said Tuesday.
The land is at the northern end of a so-called "dispersal zone" that wildlife officials have identified as being necessary to protect to give endangered Florida panthers a path to expand their range north of the river as a growing panther population in Southwest Florida runs out of room. Scientists say between 100 and 160 panthers remain in the wild.
Lone Ranger LLC, the new owner, will operate a working ranch on part of the land. Two other areas will be wetland restoration areas. The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the federal Department of Agriculture, will manage the conservation easements.
Besides the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Walmart and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also were involved in the $6.7 million transaction.
Some $2 million came from money raised by The Nature Conservancy. The Fish and Wildlife Service and Lone Ranger LLC contributed $1.5 million, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service contributed $1.5 million. Another $200,000 came from Walmart, through its Acres for America program, a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Return to naplesnews.com later today for more on this developing story