Sometimes it really does take a village to accomplish an important goal. Numerous partner agencies, non-governmental organizations and ranchers came together in LaBelle recently to celebrate the acquisition of the American Prime property one year ago, and to chart the path forward. The purchase of this “keystone tract,” now known as the Lone Ranger Forge, preserved a vital corridor for natural expansion of the endangered Florida panthers. The movement of the animals northward is considered to be one of the keys to the continued recovery of the species.
Panther scientists estimate that there are only 100 to 140 Florida panthers remaining in the wild, and the last remaining breeding population of Florida panthers is in south Florida, south of the Caloosahatchee River.
Though their home ranges are fairly large, female panthers tend to stay close to where they were born. When males mature, they naturally disperse. Historically, this was a wonderful natural strategy for maintaining genetic diversity, as males could introduce fresh genetic material as they bred with small pockets of related females throughout the southeastern part of the country. With breeding populations in more than one area, there is less competition for prey, mates and territory, and intra-specific aggression, a leading cause of death second only to vehicle collisions, is reduced. And if there are separate populations in different locations, it is easier for the species to recover from the effects of a natural disaster or a disease outbreak.
Though there have been numerous stories of panthers with kittens north of the Caloosahatchee, none have been confirmed by panther scientists. However, maintaining a path for panthers to migrate to other areas is of the utmost importance. The areas east and west of Lake Okeechobee were not previously connected; today, one may cross the state from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico on the Okeechobee Waterway. In the late 1800s, the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River were connected to the west side of Lake Okeechobee via a three-mile canal at the Moore Haven Lock and Dam. On the east side of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie canal was cut at the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam, connecting the lake to the St. Lucie River. This presented a problem for the northward movement of panthers, in that they had to cross a wide body of water and climb steep banks caused by channelization.
Still, panther biologists have tracked the movement of male panthers with radio collars across the Caloosahatchee River in one key area. Animals don’t move randomly through the wild; even creatures of different species tend to move through certain areas more frequently than others, sometimes even creating trails. The panthers coming out of south Florida seemed to be traveling along the edges of a natural waterway, and then following an agricultural ditch to a narrow spot along the Caloosahatchee River. It was this area that was identified as most important to preserve and protect, so that panthers could continue to move northward in the future.
Just how special is this spot? During the meeting, neighboring ranchers Chris Asplundh and Dwayne House, provided some perspective on just how important this area is – though few people have been lucky enough to get a glimpse of a Florida panther in the wild, House and Asplundh say they see panthers in the area almost every week.
The 1,278-acre Lone Ranger Forge property where the ditch is located, fronts a narrow section of the Caloosahatchee River that is about 92 feet wide, only a few miles west of the Ortona Lock and Dam. The complex purchase of this key property last year, with an incredible number of moving parts, extraordinarily tight deadlines, and multiple legal and funding issues, was brought to a successful conclusion at the eleventh hour, due only to dedication and combined efforts of many individuals and groups working together to achieve a common goal.
Larry Williams, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Florida Ecological Services office in Vero Beach, Fla., opened the celebratory meeting. “We have a lot of momentum right now, and we want to keep that momentum going,” he said. Williams also announced the formation of a new panther recovery implementation team.
There were several other presentations during the meeting to highlight everything that had gone on behind the scenes to make this important acquisition a reality, and to illustrate the work that must still be done to restore and manage the property. Part of the meeting was dedicated to recognizing the many individuals at multiple organizations and agencies that played a part in the eventual success of what often seemed a near-impossible undertaking.
Tunis McElwain, Fort Myers regulatory section chief, represented the Corps team members at all levels who collectively prepared the necessary documents to facilitate the easement exchange required to set the stage for the purchase.
Susan Waichulis, regulatory project manager in the Fort Myers office, was the Corps’ first “boots on the ground” representative at the beginning of the project. She accepted an award for her contribution to moving the project forward.
“This is very exciting,” said Waichulis. “I was privileged to represent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and meet everyone for the site visit, and then complete the jurisdictional determination in June 2011.”
“The Corps values our partnerships with other federal and state agencies,” said McElwain. “Establishment of the panther corridor shows just how important these partnerships are and underscores the fact that innovative problem solving can make a tremendous difference to the south Florida ecosystem. The employees recognized today represent a broad cross-section of the Corps team who worked to make the corridor a reality.”