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Wildlife park plans improvements

A new round of improvements at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park will complete a boardwalk taking visitors over a marshland while viewing native Florida plants and animals, and pay for building a new cougar habitat.

The money was raised locally by the Friends of Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. A three-year fundraising drive netted $150,000 for the Friends group, and the state contributed $100,000 in matching funds.

The Friends is a volunteer agency that provides thousands of volunteer work hours at the park as well as significant fundraising for improvements.

Larry Shearin, president of the Friends Of Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, said this week that the project will complete the boardwalk circling the park, with several hundred feet of new walkway.

"We're taking out the old gravel path and replacing it with an elevated boardwalk," Shearin said.

"This helps enhance the view of the marshlands and protects them. It makes a much more natural habitat."

The new cougar exhibit provides a much larger and open area for the park's two cougars. They are western cougars, a relative of the Florida panther.

Other improvements from the fundraising grant will be two rain shelters, a pavilion for wildlife shows, two bridges and a restroom.

The project also connects a boardwalk to the new reptile building under construction.

The new boardwalk will begin at a small bridge near the bear exhibit, leading to the bird, cougar, bobcat and otter habitats.

The second new bridge crosses the turtle and small alligator habitat, leads to the reptile building, continues south past the gopher tortoise habitat and joins the existing walkway at the alligator lagoon.

Shearin said construction is scheduled to begin in the fall and the project should take six months to complete.

"Most of the money from this has come from our yearly fundraisers," Shearin said.

"We have the Christmas Celebration of Lights and two boat cruises, which are sightseeing and bird-watching cruises around the park."

Membership to the Friends is $30 for an entire family.

"The value of that is all the money from the membership stays in the park's budget, and the second Saturday of each month, the entire family gets in for free with a family membership," Shearin said.