Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com
An environmental group secured the development rights to a key piece of land in the LaBelle area, a 460-acre tract that's expected to move the Florida panther recovery forward by giving the cats easier access to lands to the north.
The Nature Conservancy paid nearly $2 million to keep the land in an eternal state of farming and preservation, and these are lands panther managers and advocates hope will give the cats a secure location to cross the Caloosahatchee River.
"It is real critical to have a protected corridor and we’re hopeful that we can work with the landowners to the east and west to shore up this northern bank of the Caloosahatchee," said Wendy Mathews, The Nature Conservancy's project manager. "And then they have a lot of ranch lands to the north that they can move into with lots of prey, lots of hogs and deer there."
The idea is to get females north of the river so the population can better expand into central Florida and areas north of Lake Okeechobee.
Do panthers like farm lands?
"The panthers don’t seem to mind whether it’s orange groves or a cypress swamp," Mathews said. "It doesn’t seem to matter. They’ll use it if it isn’t developed."
The property sits on the south side of Highway 78 and is part of a larger corridor that stretches from Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest in Hendry County to land north of the river that's owned by the Lykes family but is being targeted by the state for acquisition and preservation.
Okaloacoochee is connected to a larger corridor that goes south to Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County, the heart of the breeding population.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says there are between 120 and 230 panthers living south of the river and Lake Okeechobee.
One goal in the panther restoration is to have three separate populations of 240 cats.
FWC manages some lands to the south of the river that are part of this same corridor.
This is the spot FWC and others hope panthers will use to grow from their stronghold in Collier to other parts of the state.
Only one female has been documented north of the river since 1973.
"The big news from last year was that we documented a female north of the river," said Darrell Land, an FWC panther biologist. "Given that there were no females prior to that, the only source of a population would be south of the river. So that female and her mother managed to get across the river, and that’s quite a feat given how developed it is in Fort Myers."
That crossing likely happened about 20 miles to the east of the Nature Conservancy lands in a more open, wider stretch of the river.
The river is more narrow at the new corridor, which makes Land and others hopeful that the cats will be able to cross with less effort.
"So that looks like the most conducive piece to get panthers to cross the river because it’s less than one-third the swim as it would be in Fort Myers," Land said. "We needed to preserve and protect a segment there."
The land is owned by LaBelle attorney, developer and farmer Dan Peregrin, who will be able to continue farming it. He can't, however, build a golf course community or sell the land for commercial development.
And that's the way he wants it.
"I wanted to look at the big picture and have nature offset to compensate for the development," Peregrin said. "I wanted to be a part of the (panther habitat) mitigation process so I wanted to be involved with the panther corridor, and I just happen to own a part of it."
Land said these type of partnerships help the state by protecting habitat and travel corridors without the state having to spend money.
And while citrus lands may not be part of the historic Everglades, they work for the cats.
"We discovered really young kittens on areas of primary citrus and the kittens were of the age. We think they were locally produced," Land said. "It’s really just a well-organized forest, and within most citrus groves there are water retention areas or thicker cover that they need. And in the citrus groves you find all kinds of deer and hogs."
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