Earth Day is an annual world-wide celebration of support for environmental protection. The first Earth Day was celebrated April 22, 1970, when the infrastructure for the 55,000-acre Southern Golden Gate Estates, near Naples in southwest Florida, was being laid out.
The grid of roads and large drainage canals in the “south blocks,” as it was known locally, would alter the hydrology, habitat, biodiversity and functionality of the natural ecosystem. Even the native sabal palm or cabbage palm, the state tree of Florida, behaved like an invasive plant. It began to grow in monocultures so dense they presented ecological problems and limited biodiversity. At the same time, the endangered Florida panther hovered on the edge of extinction. Only 12 to 20 breeding adults remained, fraught with a variety of physical problems that shortened the lives of individuals and affected the ability of the species to successfully breed and thrive.
This year, Earth Day in the south blocks is a very different story. It’s an environmental success story with a variety of subplots. The Picayune Strand Restoration Project, the first component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to begin construction, is well under way. Though the project is not yet complete, benefits are already being observed. Groundwater levels have improved and vegetation is recruiting naturally in an orderly succession. Wildlife continues to use the area, traveling long-used trails and open areas, including a bridge across one of the canals near the Merritt Pump Station, even during the construction phase.
The endangered Florida panther is making a comeback, with an estimated 100 to 160 adults and juveniles in the breeding population south of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. Biologists have been able to track, rescue and raise some of the orphaned kittens, making it possible for them to return to the wild instead of remaining in captivity.
All of these plots add up to a happy ending for FP219, as Florida panther number 219 is known. She and her brother were orphaned in 2011 when their mother was found dead. Only five months old and unable to fend for themselves, the kittens were rescued by panther biologists and raised at White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee. Now healthy and full-grown, FP219 was ready to be released into the wild.
“The goal in any panther rescue is to be able to release the animal back into the wild to aid in the recovery of this endangered species,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) panther team leader Darrell Land.
Biologists chose the Picayune Strand State Forest for the release of the panther after they evaluated the home ranges of other females in the region and found available space between them. The FWC panther team had been monitoring the movements of several panthers with radio collars, and knew that there was a home range available that spanned the eastern edge of Picayune Strand and the western part of Fakahatchee Strand. On Jan. 31, they released FP 219 in the footprint of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project, with hope that she would thrive there and one day have kittens of her own.
When it comes to land, panthers have a much different definition of “huge” than we do. The home range of a male panther is 200 square miles, though they disperse as young adults in an effort to find a home range of their own, where they don’t have to compete with other males. Several years ago, a male Florida panther was identified after he was shot in Georgia. Females tend to stay closer to where they were born, and their home ranges are smaller, about 80 square miles.
“Do you have a place where you can walk across 50 miles?” asked Land. “If so, you might have panther country.
“It’s good to have Picayune Strand being restored,” said Land. “For wide-ranging species like panther and Florida black bear, it was the missing piece of the puzzle. Where else can you walk a 50-mile path from Naples through Picayune, the Fakahatchee and Big Cypress, and only have to cross one major north-south road?”
“The Picayune Strand Restoration Project connects surrounding state and federal lands, including nature preserves and wildlife areas. It provides contiguous land area with opportunities for habitat for many animal species, including the Florida panther,” said Lacy Shaw, Corps project manager.
“The work done on the Prairie Canal area several years ago by our partners at the South Florida Water Management District has already provided benefits not only to Picayune Strand but also the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park to the east of the project site,” said Shaw. “Corps construction projects are moving forward, with Merritt Pump Station construction scheduled to be complete in fall 2013, followed by Faka Union Pump Station in fall 2014.
“The team is in the process of designing protection features to avoid impacts to the adjacent lands to the west of the project footprint,” Shaw added. “We are also analyzing alternatives for the manatee mitigation project in the Port of the Islands. The four large canals that have over-drained the area since the 70s are being plugged in an effort to restore more natural hydrology, and the reduced point-source discharge of fresh water from the Faka Union Canal will likely affect the warm water refugium where manatees congregate. We will take public comment for that portion of the project in the future. We expect all phases of the Picayune Strand Restoration Project to be complete in 2018.”