May 6, 2020

Newest Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition carries an urgency

This past week, National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr., conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and wildlife biologist Joe Guthrie set out on another expedition to prove the viability of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a connected but still endangered network of land and water to provide habitat for iconic wildlife such as the Florida panther and Florida black bear.

Their earlier expeditions totaled more than 2,000 miles.

The current weeklong expedition navigates only 60 miles but is urgent because it explores a critical bottleneck on U.S. 27, site of a proposed wildlife crossing, and traverses the heart of the controversial toll-road study region for the Southwest-Central Florida connector.

Carlton Ward Jr., photo by Veronica Runge; Mallory Dimmitt, [SCOTT KEELER | Times]; Joe Guthrie [SCOTT KEELER | Times] [Times files]

Without long-term protection, significant portions of the Florida Wildlife Corridor are at risk of fragmentation – either by roads or other development.

Map by Paul Alexander and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission [Paul Alexander]

Now in the fifth of an ongoing series of expeditions exploring the Florida Wildlife Corridor, we are introduced each time to a unique web of extraordinary Floridians who own or manage neighboring properties that sustain wild Florida. We trek to shed light on the obstacles, elevate solutions and celebrate the many who labor to protect the corridor we love.

Day 1: On horseback

The expedition started with three days on horseback to connect with the generational ranching heritage that keeps the Florida Wildlife Corridor connected in Central Florida. On the first afternoon, Mallory Dimmitt rides a horse named Mo through Little Charlie Bowlegs Creek, a tributary to the Peace River, on a working cattle ranch in eastern Hardee County. The route the team traveled is one of the last green connections linking the Peace River watershed, across the Lake Wales Ridge, to the Kissimmee River and Everglades watersheds to the east. [CARLTON WARD JR. | Florida Wildlife Corridor]

Our journey began west of Sebring in Highlands Hammock State Park, a gem in the state park network with ancient oaks, palms and scrub, rooting ourselves in a place known for its natural and cultural riches. In the early light of a Sunday morning, we gathered at the boardwalk to search for tiny songbirds beginning their southward migration. Our own journey would begin soon enough, but for a short time we chose to be quiet observers.

At midday our expedition set off on horseback, arcing west away from Sebring and then north, traveling along the western edge of the Lake Wales Ridge, the relict sand dune stretching from Clermont to Venus through Florida’s heartland. Together we move across pastureland and among the live oak hammocks lining the old creeks.

Day 2: Florida Scrub Jays

On Day 2 the trail led us to Sun N Lake Preserve, where we met Dr. Reed Bowman and his team from Archbold Biological Station. They were catching and banding Florida Scrub Jays, an endangered species endemic to Florida sand scrub whose populations are declining due to habitat loss. Bowman’s research has shown that patches of scrub can serve as contiguous jay habitat as long as a compatible landscapes, such as ranches and groves – but not development – lie in between. [CARLTON WARD JR | Florida Wildlife Corridor]

We meander down Little Charlie Bowlegs Creek in a quiet chain of horses. At the property boundary, we cross through a fence gap and a new cohort of riders appears out of the woods to lead us, and we say goodbye to our previous guides. In this manner we are shepherded across cattle ranches and citrus groves, meeting the owners and their families, listening to the stories they tell of their history, and their work on this land.

A ride through a 2-million-year-old beach

After the scrub jay session, we got back on our horses and rode across ancient dunes that are a 2-million-year old beach from the time when the rest of the Florida peninsula was under water. The fine quartz sand is a canvas for tracks of the diverse wildlife that live there. The Lake Wales Ridge is global hot spot for biological diversity. We followed in the footsteps of a large black bear and studied the signs of dozens of other animals. We also met with botanists who showed us an extremely rare plant species, Avon Park Harebell, that exists nowhere else in the world. [CARLTON WARD JR. | Florida Wildlife Corridor]

We arrive at the road’s edge after three days of hard travel through the pine flatwoods and pastures of ranch country. Looking across U.S. 27 at the green forested hills beyond, we know the significance of where we stand.

If the habitat on either side of the road were to be encroached upon by further development pressing south from Orlando, migration corridors east and west from the Florida Wildlife Corridor could be broken, perhaps permanently isolating populations of wide-ranging animals. From the perspective of human travelers, staring down the wall of traffic slicing past us, the awareness of such an abrupt division confronts each of us as well.

Day 3: A wildlife crossing

Midway through Day 3, Joe Guthrie watches traffic above a drainage culvert beneath US-27, a major highway where bears and other wildlife are frequently killed by vehicles. Here, William Freund from Fstop Foundation installed a camera trap to document whether the culvert could provide passage beneath the road for some wildlife. The Florida Department of Transportation has plans to install a larger underpass and cross fencing at this location when U.S. 27 will likely be widened to six lanes in the next decade. But for wildlife crossings to be effective, robust wildlife habitat corridors must first be protected on both sides of the road. [CARLTON WARD JR. | Florida Wildlife Corridor]

Why must we accept the marginalization and degradation of the land, the water it gives us and the rich culture it encourages? We are linked together by the land and its people, and our shared affection for it.

We wait for a break in traffic and scurry across four lanes of blacktop. The little islands of old pines are like pilot lights on the horizon, guiding us onward. We slip through a neck of woods east of the roaring highway, on to a tract of land near Lake Livingston. The sandy lake on whose bank we will set camp beams like a jewel in the afternoon light. The ground is secure here, because the owners have decided to set aside every acre of scrub and flatwoods for permanent conservation. So we go, borne along by the generosity and hope inherent in these acts.

A break after a late evening downpour

Palmettoes catch sunset light around a pine fringed pond on Lake Livingston Conservation Bank. After being soaked by a late evening downpour, the expedition team camped here on the third night. Knowing that this property is permanently protected provides hope for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, but the incessant sound of traffic on nearby U.S. 27 was a sobering reminder of the coming development and how little time we have to secure the other missing links. [CARLTON WARD JR. | Florida Wildlife Corridor]

Knowing this piece of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is secure gives us hope and also motivates us to tell the corridor’s story, because development is coming and without increasing the pace of conservation, time will soon run out for the other missing links.

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