Elizabeth Fleming, Florida Representative
Recently our Florida Program Director, Laurie Macdonald, and I attended a celebration of the years of progress in conserving and recovering the endangered Florida panther, hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in LaBelle. In particular, we celebrated the day one year ago that a crucial parcel of land in southwest Florida called the Lone Ranger Forge property was purchased for conservation.
Formerly known as American Prime, the Lone Ranger Forge is a 1,278-acre riverfront parcel in the Florida panther dispersal zone that panthers use to travel northward from south Florida across the Caloosahatchee River. This important piece of land was nearly lost to development a few years ago before the economic downturn. That would have dealt a major blow to panther range expansion and recovery, because without this linkage, panthers would have no natural crossing point to travel northward. Any increase in the panther population will depend on the ability of these large cats to move northward into central and north Florida.
But thanks to the herculean efforts of a mix of agencies, organizations and corporate and private donors, the deal closed on May 16, 2012 to acquire and protect this strategic corridor. Restoration efforts will revive and enhance the area’s wetlands, and improve the land’s value to panthers — providing vegetated areas where panthers can hunt and den. We were able to visit the property and see how it fits within the larger landscape leading up to and across the river. Laurie and I imagined seeing a panther entering the water from where we stood and swimming across to find new territory.
The FWS presented the major partners instrumental in the American Prime/Lone Ranger Forge project with awards. Chris Belden, who recently retired as the FWS’s Florida Panther Recovery Coordinator (following a long career with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Panther Program), was presented with a Meritorious Service Award from the Department of the Interior.
To keep up the momentum on panther conservation and recovery, the FWS announced the formation of a Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team to work on expanding the panther’s range. Defenders of Wildlife will serve on the team as the only conservation organization, along with FWS, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Park Service and a landowner. Some of the team’s priorities will include developing plans to help panthers expand their range north of the Caloosahatchee, crafting plans for establishing viable populations outside of south Florida, working with private landowners on incentive programs for conserving and restoring panther habitat, and identifying needs for underpasses to reduce panther road fatalities – one of the leading causes of panther deaths. Defenders was part of the larger team that helped develop the Florida Panther Recovery Plan and we look forward to serving on the new team and subgroups working to advance panther restoration and recovery efforts.
While we definitely have our work cut out for us, it was great to take the opportunity to reflect upon the progress that has been made since the 1970’s, when panther numbers had plummeted to a low of fewer than 20 cats! Panther conservation has, indeed, come a long way.
Check out more photos of this important piece of panther habitat: