The Race for the Caloosahatchee River
To rebound from near extinction, Florida panthers need to expand their range beyond this river. Protecting its crossing took a near miracle.
Wendy Mathews works real estate in southwest Florida. Though she’s never met her clients face to face, she knows they’re settling in nicely to their home.
They are, after all, leaving four-foot high claw marks on nearby palm trees and fence posts.
Some call them cougars. Others prefer mountain lions, pumas or wildcats. Here in Florida, where Mathews works as The Nature Conservancy’s conservation projects manager, they’re panthers.
And while these big cats once roamed across the entire contiguous United States, Floridians are the only people east of the Mississippi River who can truly call these impressive cats something else: neighbors.
They almost lost that chance completely.
Hanging on by its claws
In the 1970s, an estimated 20 Florida panthers (including possibly only three females) were left in the wild, clinging to pockets of iconic Florida habitat in the Big Cypress area of the northern Everglades. In the 1990s, two decades after being included on the federal Endangered Species list, panther numbers were still dangerously low and their gene pool was drying up.
The panther was, as Mathews puts it, “hanging on by its claws.” After the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) temporarily released eight female pumas from Texas into the Big Cypress area, the panther population finally started to rebound. Today there are thought to be around 200 panthers scattered across southern Florida.
Throughout this time, TNC has been the face of land protection in Florida, working with partners at the federal and state levels to set aside land for a panther corridor in a race with developers. The good news about the panther rebound led to the challenge of Mathews’s career: determining where a big cat nestled on the lower tip of Florida’s peninsula could go from there.
A barrier to the north
The habitat in the southernmost parts of the state can only hold so many panthers. To continue to rebound, some of them must look north, which would mean an encounter with the Caloosahatchee River.
The Caloosahatchee is an east-west river cutting through the heart of southwest Florida that’s been dredged, widened and straightened over the years to accommodate farms and drainage projects.
As agile as these big cats are, they cannot easily cross an industrialized river like this one, let alone the highways that run parallel to it.
It needed to be here
One small stretch of the river, however, was narrow enough for a crossing within the corridor where panthers move. To the east, sugarcane and rowcrops dominate the landscape with few wild areas in between for panthers to use as refuge. To the west, the city of LaBelle was expanding one subdivision and shopping center at a time.
“This was the spot,” says Mathews, “It needed to be here.” Data from some radio-collared Florida panthers proved they were inhabiting this stretch. In no uncertain terms, “this was it.”
But this tract of riverfront real estate was desirable beyond the world of claws and paws. The 1,278 acre ranch sitting on the south bank of the river was bought by a development firm that had high hopes for a large neighborhood right on the river. Hundreds of houses would be built on manmade islands sitting in a constructed lake diverted from the Caloosahatchee. With the houses would come hundreds of cars and roads, lethal obstacles for the panther.
The roller coaster
Then, in an oddly serendipitous moment, the panther benefitted from forces well beyond conservation and well beyond Florida. The Great Recession hit in 2008, causing the property to face foreclosure before construction had started. TNC learned of the impending foreclosure and sized up its pounce.
“We at TNC knew we had to do it and knew we had to do it right because we had just one opportunity,” said Mathews.
Mathews and her colleagues organized funding from the FWS that passed through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and worked with a number of other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that each had their own deadlines and requirements.
“It was just the most amount of stress I’ve ever felt,” said Mathews. “It was this constant rollercoaster of feeling great about it and then being completely dejected thinking that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Due to the size and cost of the property, buying it outright as a preserve or park was out of the question. Instead, the Florida team worked with the surrounding community to identify a “conservation buyer,” in this case a local rancher, who would end up owning the land with a conservation easement placed on it. The easement is a contract that keeps the land from being further developed while providing financial incentives for the owner.
The rancher could extend his nearby ranch at a reduced price and the panther could access the river from natural land that would never become a neighborhood. In fall of 2012, one day before the property was to be auctioned off, the deal was completed.
“It was a feeling of complete satisfaction and elation that we had maybe made a difference for the panther's population and its future” says Mathews. “It was just extreme excitement, high fiving and goosebumps for days.”
A highway runs through it
The celebration was short because the TNC team now had their next major challenge: making sure the panther could cross the four-lane State Road 80 (SR 80) highway to access the property in the first place.
The easement on the river parcel spurred Drainage Engineer Brent Setchell’s team at the Florida Department of Transportation into action. Setchell identifies opportunities for wildlife underpasses at highway bridges that span southwest Florida’s many small canals. When a road is being widened as part of major project, it can be cost effective to incorporate a wildlife crossing into the design as well.
An important aspect to consider when building a crossing is where exactly you’re funneling a 160-pound cat. Setchell would prefer not to send a parade of Florida panthers directly through someone’s backyard.
Setchell says that the key to long-term success in a crossing is “ensuring quality habitat remains on both sides of the bridge.”
So TNC did just that. Having already conserved the land north of SR 80, they agreed in 2015 to an easement on the parcel directly on the south side of the highway, a ranch where customers can hunt game animals for sport. The manager admits the panther isn’t great for the game ranch’s bottom line–one female panther was observed teaching her kittens how to hunt a specific species of African deer–but in the panther corridor of the state, you’re going to have them.
Everything a panther needs–for now
The panther now has a clear line to the river. But how friendly will the other side be once it crosses?
This was a concern of Mathews’s, who cites the many orange groves in the area that, as citrus’s profitability diminishes, could end up being sold to developers. The TNC team was able to secure an additional easement in the corridor, on an orange grove on the northern bank of the Caloosahatchee.
The property provides everything a Florida panther needs to raise her kittens: water, cover and prey in the form of feral hogs that go after fallen oranges and roots.
Like a good realtor, Mathews is looking to expand her territory and provide more options, even if her clients tend to be a little shy. “We think we've effectively protected the critical point where the cats cross. We're hopeful to make it a little wider in the future.”