Land crucial to future of Florida panthers to be preserved from development

The Nature Conservancy announced Tuesday that it has preserved a key piece of property that allows Florida panthers to flee their shrinking habitat in the state's southern tip.

The 1,270-acre parcel in Glades County east of LaBelle was owned by American Prime, a Miami real estate company known for running 30-minute infomercials that air on Spanish-language radio and television.

The land is not pristine swamp or forest — it has been used as a ranch and a sod farm. But it's where a steady stream of male panthers have been documented crossing the Caloosahatchee River to venture northward.

As recently as four years ago, American Prime wanted to develop the land. A day before it was due to be foreclosed on by a bank, a joint effort by the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies — along with a donation from conservationist Nathaniel Reed — took it off the market to preserve it, according to the conservancy's Florida director, Shelly Lakly. The purchase price: $6.65 million.

"This is really what the future of conservation is going to look like," Lakly said.

Conservancy officials would not say who wound up owning the parcel except that it's a private entity that will operate the land as a ranch. But federal officials identified the company as Lone Ranger LLC, a partnership whose sole member listed in state records is Dwayne A. House, 74. House, president of Goodno Ranch in Hendry and Glades counties, did not respond to a request for comment.

The new owner has sold conservation easements across the property to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, guaranteeing it will never be developed —- and thus should be available as an outlet for panthers squeezed out of their habitat in South Florida.

In an interview with the Times last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe contended the most crucial thing his agency could do to help panthers was to buy that land.

"We want to preserve a corridor for the panthers to get across the Caloosahatchee," Ashe said.

Although they are Florida's state animal, for decades panthers have been largely confined to the peninsula's southern tip. But development and agriculture have shrunk their habitat.

Wildlife officials have long contended the only way to get the Florida panther off the endangered list is to create more than one colony of them. Ideally, there would be three, each with at least 250 adults. Right now there's one colony of 100 to 150 panthers.

Some panther advocates contend the federal government should capture a few male and female panthers and relocate them to create a new colony. But federal officials have always shied away from moving panthers to save the species.

"We'd like them to do it themselves," Ashe said.

As the panther population has been squeezed into smaller territory, a few young male panthers have swum across the Caloo­sahatchee River, heading north into the rest of Florida. If American Prime were to develop its land, that river crossing would no longer exist.

Four years ago American Prime wanted to build 624 homes there — one less than the number that would trigger heightened state scrutiny of its plans — as well as a marina with more than 200 boat slips. Glades County officials were happy to oblige the company's request for a land-use change, despite the warnings of environmental activists about the effect on panthers. One commissioner asked whether the panthers couldn't just be moved elsewhere.

But the proposal ran into objections from the state Department of Community Affairs and other state agencies over its destruction of wetlands, its location in a flood-prone area and other issues. The project stalled.

Photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who led the recent Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition north from the Everglades, said his group camped on the American Prime property in February and saw its value compared with what was all around it.

"We could feel the tight squeeze of human development on the land there for the first time," he wrote in an email.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

Land crucial to future of Florida panthers to be preserved from development 05/22/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 11:39pm]

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