Florida panther walking in forest toward the camera.
Florida Panther Florida panther at Babcock Ranch © Carlton Ward Jr.


New Report Confirms Proposed Southwest-Central Florida Connector Would Impact Habitat Essential to the Endangered Florida Panther

The Nature Conservancy announces a new report that concludes construction of the proposed M-CORES Southwest-Central Florida (SW-CFL) Connector toll road would have consequences to the endangered Florida panther and its essential habitat. The report indicates that the road could negate the great strides in species recovery that have been accomplished during the last 25 years of intensive management efforts by state and federal agencies.

The report, Potential Impacts of the Southwest-Central Florida Connector on the Florida Panther and Its Habitat,” is authored by panther habitat expert and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife ecologist, Randy Kautz and was commissioned by The Nature Conservancy. Released in advance of the September 23, 2020 meeting of the SW-CFL Connector Task Force, the study provides Task Force members and the public with data on panther habitat, expected impacts of future development, and land fragmentation due to the potential expansion of existing road corridors, from Polk County to Collier County.

“The report illustrates the potential existential threat to the Florida panther posed by loss of habitat caused by induced development that would result from construction of a major new toll road in Southwest Florida,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We continue to provide science-based input to the toll road task force, in an effort to identify the potential catastrophic impacts to nature that this road could have. After careful review, we cannot recommend proceeding with the planning for a Southwest-Central Florida Connector.”

The report indicates that the construction of a new toll road from Central to Southwest Florida will accelerate the predicted loss of panther habitat, including roadkill mortality, and likely harm panther population survival by facilitating development in rural regions of southwest Florida. Additionally, there will be a direct loss of panther habitat within the footprint of the new road, additional fragmentation, and barriers to panther movement.

The report notes that habitat loss associated with an expanding human population has been identified as a key factor affecting the long-term survival and recovery of the Florida panther. Loss includes the conversion of natural lands with forest cover to agriculture or urban development, road construction, and dredging of artificial surface water drainage systems. These activities not only destroy panther habitats, but also degrade the quality of remaining habitats, often isolating patches from panther use.

Absent careful growth management and acquisition of key parcels of conservation lands, future development, such as the M-CORES SW-CFL Connector toll road, and sea level rise have the potential to threaten the continued existence of the Florida panther.

Aerial view of Caloosahatchee River, Florida.
Caloosahatchee River Lands around this waterway are necessary for Florida panther movement and are one of the areas of focus identified for species recovery. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Plans for species recovery identify important lands for the panther: the Primary and Secondary Zones which provide habitat, and the Dispersal zone which offers land necessary for panther movement from South to Central Florida across the Caloosahatchee River. Within the SW-CFL Corridor Study area, projected panther habitat loss from growth and 1.0 meter of sea level rise in Southwest Florida would likely result in the loss of 34% of the Florida panther Primary Zone, 30% of the Secondary Zone, 34% of the Dispersal Zone, and 21% of the Primary Dispersal/Expansion Area north of the Caloosahatchee River.

According to the report, specific areas at risk include the loss of habitats northwest of Corkscrew Swamp to panthers; degradation of the existing panther corridor along Camp Keais Strand; loss of areas of the Primary Zone in the vicinity of the East Collier Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA); severing of the landscape linkage into Central Florida provided by the Dispersal Zone; and the conversion of high-quality habitats in Glades and Charlotte counties to human developments. (See Figure 3 map in the report which projects the loss of habitat by 2070 caused by development and sea level rise).

On August 11, 2020, The Nature Conservancy sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis, commenting that: “To date, the land use impacts of constructing the new transportation corridor on critical panther habitat, and what residential and commercial development trends will result, have not been presented to the Task Force. The cumulative impacts of a toll road on inducing development in eastern Collier County and elsewhere in critical panther habitat lead us to question the wisdom and feasibility of constructing the Southwest-Central Florida Corridor through the heart of panther country.” 

The M-CORES statute requires that the Task Force: “Address the impacts of the construction of a project within the corridor on panther and other wildlife habitat and evaluate in its final report the need for acquisition of lands for state conservation or as mitigation for project construction;” in addition to evaluating wildlife crossings to protect panther and other important wildlife habitat corridor connections. The Potential Impacts of the Southwest-Central Florida Connector on the Florida Panther and Its Habitat” report can inform that evaluation.

Given the conclusions of the report, The Nature Conservancy continues to object to the construction of the M-CORES Southwest-Central Florida Connector toll road project.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.