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  1. Opinion

Perspective: The Heartland to Headwaters Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finds frustration and fear seeking a safe path for wildlife across Interstate 4

Caught by the flash of a motion-sensing camera on the Hendrie Ranch, this juvenile black bear is framed by the saw palmettos whose berries are important to its diet. Bears once roamed all of Florida but their ranges are now greatly reduced. Highlands County ranches provide excellent habitat for a special bear population that survives almost entirely on private land. With proper management, these ranches could serve as a key corridor, linking Big Cypress and the Everglades with populations to the north. [Photograph copyright Carlton Ward Jr. www.carltonward.com ]
Published Apr. 22, 2018

The original Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition in 2012 was inspired by how the Florida black bear roamed — and the space it needed to do so successfully. In 2010, expedition team member Joe Guthrie conducted research through the University of Kentucky to understand how a small bear population from Highlands and Glades counties could survive among a landscape dominated by human development. A particularly adventurous GPS-collared male dubbed M34 traveled nearly 500 miles over two months. Starting near Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, he ventured north through the Everglades Headwaters toward Celebration. Despite numerous attempts, he was unable to safely cross Interstate 4, and ultimately returned south to protected lands and privately owned ranches along the Lake Wales Ridge. (The bear cub in this photo, who is not M34, was photographed on the Hendrie Ranch in Highlands County.) Expedition team members are experiencing M34's same frustrations as they traverse the wild/urban edge of the corridor, hoping to complete their journey today. After leaving Disney Wilderness Preserve, a conservation gem, the team has encountered a difficult trek compounded by construction, roads, trash and persistent noise. "There is this clatter of noise that makes you want to be holed up somewhere and concealed," Guthrie said. "If you were a large animal, like a bear, sensitive to loud noise and people's voices, you would tend towards nocturnal activities. Certainly on these roads, you feel a nervousness. That's not a feeling we like, and the animals don't either." Yet, withdrawing into the swamp poses its own challenge as low water levels have made navigating them impossible. Animals, especially amphibians, reptiles and birds in rookeries, are also more exposed and vulnerable during drier conditions. As the team trudges on, the wildlife waits for summer rains to replenish the wetlands.

Lindsay Cross, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor

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