It's an hour after sunset on the first of November. Stars are starting to show in the moonless twilight as a female Florida panther follows a game trail through wiregrass and palmettos beneath an open canopy of pines. She doesn't notice the invisible infrared flash from a tree to her left as she continues down the trail past the tracks of deer, turkeys, raccoons and hogs. Leaving her own tracks in the sand, she descends from the flatwoods toward an oak hammock studded with cabbage palms near a vast cypress swamp drying by the week but still wet from summer rains.
Two days later, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission returned to the site to check on their motion-sensing game cameras. They knew they had something special when the graceful feline took shape on their computer screen. Then they found her tracks nearby and made plaster casts to corroborate the first evidence of a female Florida panther found north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973.
For the past four decades, the Caloosahatchee has been the northern boundary to the known breeding range of the Florida panther — our state animal and the only puma species surviving east of the Mississippi. In that time, the panther population has rebounded from as few as 30 adults to nearly 200 today. But the requirements for the species to recover from its Endangered Species status include establishing additional breeding populations of similar size in areas the panther formerly occupied north of the Caloosahatchee.
The first female panther documented there gives new hope to her species, and she couldn't have picked a better place for her new home. Babcock Ranch is a 70,000-acre state preserve that protects a diversity of habitats, deep woods for cover and abundant game to eat. Babcock is also part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, 16 million acres of public and private lands that make up a statewide network of connected wildlife habitat stretching from the Everglades to Georgia and Alabama.
Protecting the panther gained urgency last week with the discovery of the 31st and 32nd killed by vehicles, breaking the annual record yet again. A breeding age female was found dead in Collier County on State Road 29 and a 4-month-old kitten was killed near the Fort Myers airport. The rising toll shows there are both more panthers and more people in South Florida and reminds us of the need to save more habitat throughout the panther's range.
Earlier this year, I received a grant from the National Geographic Society to explore the story of the Florida panther and I've spent the past six months based out of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples, managing a group of custom-made camera traps there and on nearby cattle ranches. I was ecstatic when I heard of the female panther at Babcock Ranch and went there early this month with FWC biologists to deploy a camera of my own.
The last time I had visited Babcock Ranch was 2012, during the first Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 100-day, 1,000-mile trek tracing the best remaining connected habitat from Everglades National Park in South Florida to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. We had arrived at Babcock on Day 25 after paddling up Telegraph Cypress Creek from the Caloosahatchee River. Two days before, we had started paddling east of La Belle at a place known as a panther crossing — one of the last stretches where there was undeveloped land on both sides of the river.
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The fate of property south of the river was then unknown, but later that year the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, FWC and other partners orchestrated a crucial deal that saved the land from foreclosure — and likely development — and sold it to a neighboring cattle rancher with the permanent protection of a conservation easement. There's no way to know whether the female swam the river at that spot, but it's encouraging to know she could have.
The part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor that overlaps the Greater Everglades (think Orlando south) consists primarily of public conservation lands and working cattle ranches, with groves and other forms of agriculture mixed in.
The path of our 2012 expedition approximates the path panthers will follow to expand into their historic territory. The path begins from South Florida public lands like Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, all at risk of being cut off from the rest of the state and needing lifelines north to the Caloosahatchee and beyond, where the fabric of the corridor consists largely of private ranches interspersed with state and federal preserves. The ranches interest me the most because their futures aren't secure, yet without them the corridor would not exist. During the expedition, we hiked across or camped on nearly 30 ranches whose owners were interested in conservation easements as alternatives to development.
On Day 16, we traveled from Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to JB Ranch, owned by Aliese and Russell Priddy. Theirs was the first private ranch of the trek, positioned just north of 4 million acres of contiguous public land. Aliese Priddy is also an FWC commissioner. When I asked her about the function of ranches in panther recovery, she said, "Florida cattle ranches provide exceptional wildlife habitat throughout the state, not just for panthers but for all wildlife. Without ranches, panther recovery would not have progressed as quickly as it has. Ranchers are experienced land managers, and it is through their stewardship that these private lands are able to support their livestock in addition to native species."
The Priddys have lost cattle to panthers and their experiences have helped shape federal programs that have partially compensated them for their losses and will reduce the burden for other ranchers who continue supporting the panther's recovery.
For the past 12 years, the conservation of Florida ranches has been the unifying theme of my photography. It is from this perspective that I came to focus on the Everglades headwaters, Florida black bears, the Florida Wildlife Corridor and most recently the Florida panther.
The more time I spend thinking about the panthers and ranches, the more I see how their futures depend on one another. I called other ranchers who hosted our team during the 2012 expedition, starting with legendary cattleman Alto "Bud" Adams Jr, 90. We camped at his family's ranch in the Everglades Headwaters on Day 47. Bud told me, "I would like to have panthers on my place if it wasn't too costly," alluding to the potential for panthers to eat calves.
I described the new program that recently paid the Priddys for livestock lost to panthers, to which he replied, "Good. If we had a resident population of panther, we would be of greater importance to saving the wildlife of Florida, and there's certainly something in there for everybody." When I brought up the news of a female panther at Babcock, he said, "If the panther's north of the river, I would say he has pretty good prospects of it covering the peninsula. There's nothing else to stop him."
He's right, at least for now, because the Florida Wildlife Corridor is still connected. But that could change quickly as ranchers like him are pressured by estate taxes and growing families to sell their land, paving the way for roads and development to push further inland.
My next chat was with Cary Lightsey, who is 64. We paddled to his family's Lake Kissimmee ranch on Day 48 of the expedition. The Lightseys have ranched in central Florida since the 1850s and have protected nearly 90 percent of their land with conservation easements. I asked Cary about the female panther north of the Caloosahatchee. He said, "The panther is going to have to help us save Florida," adding, "people understand panthers need to have big areas to live in and if we develop these areas and lose them, we're going to lose the panther too. I feel like the panther can help us keep these big tracts."
I had last seen Cary in Bartow at the September meeting at the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. He recalled that day, saying, "I had three different people tell me either their sister or brother or stepmother is going to make them sell the ranch to the developer so they'd have enough money to pay the other person off. And all three of these people said, 'Well, if you give me a chance to do an easement I'm going to pay your part of it off and keep the land like it is.' It shows you how close a lot of these ranches get to being lost."
The more I look and listen, the more clearly I see how much ranchers and panthers have in common, facing the same common threat — the rapid sprawling development that is consuming lands on which they both depend.
Florida 2070, a new study by 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture and University of Florida, projects that Florida's population will grow from 20 million today to nearly 35 million by the year 2070. Their Trend 2070 model shows that if development follows current trends it will consume 5 million acres of natural and agricultural lands. The study also presents Alternative 2070, which shows that by protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor we can accommodate the 15 million new residents while preserving 5 million acres of wildlife habitat and a future for Florida agriculture.
Looking at the 2070 maps, we can see how ranchers and panthers need each other. Panthers need ranchers because the species cannot recover without their land. Ranchers need panthers because in the face of relentless development, the only way to ensure a future for ranching is to move policy makers to adequately fund conservation of ranchlands.
The biggest barrier to recovery for the panther is insufficient funding for land protection, and the biggest impediment to funding has been Tallahassee, where lawmakers continue to resist the will of the people to protect more land. In 2014, Floridians voted with a 75 percent majority to pass the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, designed to invest one-third of real estate transaction taxes into land conservation. Based on the current economy, the amount should be $800 million per year. But lawmakers have chosen to divert most of these funds into existing agency budgets and land management rather than protecting new land.
Take Florida Forever, our state's hallmark land conservation program. It received $300 million per year starting in 1990 under the leadership of governors from Bob Martinez to Jeb Bush but has never received more than $20 million per year during the Scott administration. We have similar problems in Washington. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund should receive nearly $1 billion annually from taxes on oil and gas leases. But those funds often flow to general revenue rather than their intended purpose for projects like the Everglades Headwaters National Conservation Area or potential expansion of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The Florida Department of Agriculture's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) is excellent and provides tremendous opportunity. At the September meeting where I had seen Cary Lightsey, there were dozens of other ranchers making presentations to join a list of more than 100 properties prioritized for conservation easements. Conservation easements strip away the development value of the land to ensure the land will always remain a working farm or ranch. JB Ranch and the Adams Ranch have recently participated in the program, and my family filed an application for our Hardee County ranch earlier this year.
The last rancher I saw at the meeting was Derek Hendrie, 27, who completed agricultural studies at the University of Florida and is working with his grandfather Jim Hendrie continuing the heritage at their Highlands County ranch. Derek included in his slideshow a photo of a male panther captured on his property by one of my camera traps. He said, "As the panther population and territory continues to grow and expand to other parts of the state, ranchers and biologists need to work together now more than ever to create and implement a management plan to ensure that not only the Florida panther can continue to grow and thrive, but also so that Florida cattle ranches can thrive, profit and continue to provide essential habitat to all species of Florida wildlife."
RFLPP has $30 million in this year's budget, which allows meaningful progress. But we need to invest 10 times that much in easements annually to balance the 175,000 acres per year, or 20 acres per hour, we lose to development.
The female panther at Babcock Ranch calls us to make a choice about the future of Florida. Do we want to bulldoze and develop what's left beyond the boundaries of our parks? Or do we want to save the Florida Wildlife Corridor and provide a future for panthers, cattle ranches, hunting and fishing, the Everglades, our water supply and the state's $120 billion agricultural economy? If lawmakers will honor the will of voters and fully invest in conservation, we can follow the path of the panther and example of the rancher to help save wild Florida.
Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic Explorer focused on the story of the Florida panther. He has trekked 2,000 miles through Florida's wildest areas to raise visibility for the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. His photographs are available through CarltonWard.com and his gallery in Tampa. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard.