Robert Connors: The great Florida wildlife expedition


Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 8:46 p.m.

On Jan. 17, a small group of scientists and conservationists set off on foot to explore a pathway through the backwoods, swamps and rivers of Florida. Starting near Flamingo, at the southern tip of the Everglades, they will wind their way for 1,000 miles over the course of 100 days, ending their journey at the Okeefenokee Swamp, on the Georgia border.

While they don't expect to discover new species, lost worlds or cities of gold, they will no doubt encounter treasures along the way.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, as the effort is named, is intended to demonstrate and define the primary pathways that allow for the survival of many of the animal species that have called Florida home since before the first humans arrived here perhaps 15,000 years ago.

While Florida no longer hosts giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, giant armadillos or even the tiny Dusky Seaside Sparrow, the wildlife that remains is a valuable heritage. Without our attention, it may soon be lost.

The brainchild of wildlife photographer and conservationist Carlton Ward Jr., the expedition also includes bear biologist Joe Guthrie and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt. Together the three, joined at intervals by other scientists, volunteers, property owners, and local and state officials, will slog through knee-deep muck, glide in kayaks and camp under the stars.

Award-winning cinematographer Elam Stoltzfus will document the expedition and produce a film about the journey.

So why, you may ask, is this a wildlife corridor, and why do animals need corridors, anyway? The answer lies in the genetic make-up of virtually every species, including humans.

Animals wander in the course of their lives for a variety of reasons: to find a mate, to find food, to seek shelter or just because, as Robert Frost reminds us, they sometimes follow “the path less taken.”

In wandering, animals also provide an essential function: they disperse their genes. Animals within small breeding populations often develop specific traits and weaknesses due to the lack of genetic diversity. Florida panthers, reduced to very small numbers in isolated locations, began to exhibit abnormally low sperm counts, congenital heart defects, and even failed sexual development among male panthers. Those conditions threatened their reproduction and survival.

Florida black bears face many of the same challenges. Scattered into five generally isolated populations, their future is full of challenges, Areas with too few bears may soon have none at all. Florida bears have been tracked wandering as far as 200 miles through rural areas of the state.

Not only large predators, but small animals and even plants diversify their genes over generations of movement, sometimes on a glacial scale, as breezes carry pollen from tree to tree.

Dr. Tom Hoctor is a research scientist at the University of Florida. It was his presentation about Florida's need for “greenways” that inspired Ward to conceive of the Expedition. Both men are associated with the Conservation Trust for Florida, Hoctor as a part-time employee, and Ward as a member of the advisory board of the trust.

Protecting the diversity of Florida's fauna and flora is only one part of the mission of the Conservation Trust for Florida. While they work principally through providing for the permanence of open space and working lands, creating corridors is an important benefit.

In the absence of local, state and federal funds to purchase important parcels, the Conservation Trust for Florida often assists land owners with the creation of “Conservation Easements.” These easements allow the land owner to continue the productive use of the land, often as a farm, ranch or timber-producing property.

In exchange for permanently surrendering the right to develop the land, owners receive income tax benefits, as well as potential savings in land and estate taxes. Major land owners such as Plum Creek find benefit in protecting their extensive working forests, and all citizens benefit.

Although Florida has numerous large preserves where animals are allowed to remain, those parcels are not connected. Much of the course of the Expedition will travel through private lands, most still subject to development. Maintaining a corridor through what remains will not be easy.

The Conservation Trust for Florida is determined that future Floridians will be able to enjoy sharing our state with as many of our present species as possible. For more information, visit www.conserveflorida.org.

Robert Connors is executive director of the Conservation Trust for Florida.

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