In east Charlotte, U.S. 17 development could cut off endangered cats' rebound
CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Developers are eyeing U.S. 17 as the county's next hot spot for commerce and industry, but the rural road bisects a stretch of land identified as a critical route for panthers to travel between Babcock Ranch and Myakka River State Park.
While some private landowners plot out a strategy for future growth on U.S. 17, others are talking with wildlife officials about setting aside land for panther habitat.
The conflict comes at a time when record numbers of panthers are dying on roadways in South Florida, where a growing panther population has run up against urban sprawl and has started moving north of the Caloosahatchee River.
The land-use decisions on U.S. 17 could mean success or failure for the recovery of one of the world's most endangered cats.
Wildlife experts say the key is to create pathways connecting patches of habitat where the panthers can breed.
So far, the biggest property owner listening to pleas to preserve such pathways is Lykes Bros. Inc., which owns about 300,000 acres.
Cari Roth, an attorney for Lykes Bros., said discussions with wildlife officials are still in beginning stages. But the company is already sensitive about preserving the environmental value of its land.
Roth recently took a stand against a proposed landfill in east Charlotte County, which she said would have diminished the panther habitat value of one of the Lykes properties.
Experts estimate the panther population has grown to 125 to 150, based on the number of panthers that have become roadkill this year.
But that number is not large enough for the animals to survive as a species, especially if they are crowded into shrinking habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River, said Darrell Land, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Land has been meeting with property owners north of the river to let them know they can be compensated for putting land in conservation or permanently restricting its use to ranchland.
Wildlife officials are hopeful that preserved lands at Cecil B. Webb Wildlife Management Area and Babcock Ranch,, as well as Lykes property in Glades and Highlands counties, will form at least one patch of habitat for panthers to thrive north of the Caloosahatchee.
Another important patch of habitat lies in Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County.
But whether the large patches can support a breeding population depends on the existence of wildlife pathways to connect them.
Male panthers require more than 100 acres to roam; females require 50 to 60 acres.
"We absolutely have to enhance those corridors so panthers can not only travel between point A and point B, but so they can live there," Land said.
If development along U.S. 17 isn't planned with the panther in mind, urban growth could sever the migration route that scientists have pinpointed as critical.
Plans for growth along U.S. 17 could also make property more expensive and drive up the cost of securing a link between the Babcock habitat and the Myakka River land.
Keeping panthers on the planet is not cheap, Land said.
He said wildlife officials have so far spent at least $100 million on efforts to keep the panther from going extinct. Most of that money was used to buy habitat.
Although budget restraints recently caused county planners to slow progress on the U.S. 17 plan, private interests are still working on it and trying to come up with funding, said Geri Waksler, an attorney for Hudsonson River, one of the most prominent landholders along the road.
The Hudsonson River parcel had been Florida Gulf Coast University's first choice for a satellite branch, but the location was rejected by commissioners because they feared it would promote sprawl.
Waksler said growth is still likely to come to U.S. 17, and it is better to plan for it before it happens.
But some worry that a growth plan would spark development in areas better left rural. A similar plan, also instigated by developers, preceded a burst of growth along Burnt Store Road.
"It's the toe in the door to sprawl in east county," said Sue Reske, a local Sierra Club leader who is particularly worried about panthers.
Adam Cummings, a county commissioner, said the foot in the door actually began with the county's approval of the Babcock Ranch development.
"They saw a chink in the armor," Cummings said, referring to developers who are pushing to build in the eastern part of county.
But high growth in critical panther habitat is not necessarily a given.
State and federal wildlife officials are making it more of a priority to ensure local decision makers are aware of endangered species laws and the scientific research that plots out the best panther habitat, Land said.