Nature Conservancy protects land for panther pathway

Nature Conservancy Magazine’s Spring 2018 edition announces a recently established conservation easement on some Glades County land along the northern bank of the Caloosahatchee River, in an area where a female Florida panther was seen last year with two kittens. That was the first sighting in more than 40 years, according to wildlife agency officials.

An easement established in October for the 460-acre Cypress Creek Grove property, owned by Falcon Eyrie Farms LC, marks a bundle of firsts for the Nature Conservancy (NC), which already protects, controls or owns several parcels in Florida including the Blowing Rocks Preserve on Jupiter Island. This conservation easement forever safeguards the land from urban development.

Cypress Creek Grove is the first working citrus farm in the state to commit to protection of the endangered panther by helping to establish corridors, or pathways, connecting the feline’s habitat and enhancing the panther population’s long-term recovery and survivability, the NC says. Fewer than 200 of the endangered cats are estimated to remain in the state’s wildlands, and they continue to be threatened by loss of habitat, development on their rangelands and vehicle strikes.

It is also the first protected tract of land within the identified panther corridor north of the river, and the first conservation easement in that corridor financed entirely by NC member donations. The property is within an area that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have reported is important to panther habitat connectivity and expansion, according to the NC. The animal requires wide territory to support a healthy breeding population, and suitable lands in Glades and Hendry counties link panthers’ larger Southwest Florida habitat with wild areas north of the Caloosahatchee.

Florida Forever lands nearby
Now, expanded habitat is just a brief swim away for the cats south of the river, as Cypress Creek Grove is directly across the Caloosahatchee from the 1,257-acre Lone Ranger Forge/American Prime property. It is also protected by a conservation easement with the NC and other ones with state and federal agencies. The southern border of that land abuts the 1,527-acre Black Boar Ranch, which is under NC easement protection as well with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those three easements ensure into perpetuity that 3,244 acres of prime Florida panther habitat will remain intact. Also, on the northern end, the panther pathway leads into lands identified for future conservation by the Florida Forever program, including an area directly connected that is high on that program’s priority list for acquisition, the NC says.

Special to the Okeechobee News/Nature Conservancy photo by Wendy J. Matthews
Looking east over the Caloosahatchee River, the Cypress Creek Grove property is on the left, on the northern bank, and the Lone Ranger Forge/American Prime property is on the right, on the southern bank.

“The Nature Conservancy has been working for more than 20 years to create a connected, protected corridor that can support Florida panther recovery,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director of the NC in Florida. “Cypress Creek Grove is a key piece of the mosaic of natural and working lands that make up the corridor. We’re truly thrilled that Falcon Eyrie Farms LC has committed to the future of panther conservation, and we’re grateful to our members for the donations earmarked for panther protection that made this possible.”

Dan Peregrin of Falcon Eyrie Farms said: “Protecting the Florida panther is important to us. We know panthers use our land as they cross from one side of the river to the other, and we wanted to support their ability to expand north in the future. The conservation easement allows us to continue to be productive, while also ensuring the land will not be developed.”

The Cypress Creek citrus grove dates to the late 1980s when that land began being used for commercial production. About 273 acres are planted with Valencia and Hamlin oranges, according to the company, and the tract also has freshwater and forested wetlands and the creek that provides habitat for many other wildlife species including wading birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The protected, connected lands also offer safety to several other endangered, threatened or iconic Florida species, such as the snail kite, the swallow-tailed kite and the Florida black bear.

Panther workshop scheduled
Another major environmental organization, Defenders of Wildlife, has scheduled a Panther Outreach Workshop at a wildlife research venue in Venus, in Highlands County, next month to help inform the public about the Florida panther’s path to recovery.

Members of the group received an email announcing the workshop, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, at the Archbold Biological Station at 123 Main Drive in Venus, Fla. 33960. Those attending will enjoy a complimentary lunch and hear from Florida panther experts, receive information about projects that help reduce conflict and assist rural residents in living responsibly with the big cats and other wildlife, and get Defenders-themed swag. Materials will be provided to allow attendees to speak accurately with others about the Florida panther as well as conservation programs and projects being conducted for preservation of the species.

Anyone planning to attend should bring comfortable shoes for a short walk in the scrub during the workshop. Go to www.defenders.org to learn more about Defenders of Wildlife or to sign up to attend. Those planning to participate will need to sign a release of liability form provided by the Frances Archbold Hufty Learning Center at Archbold Biological Station.

(Disclosure: The writer is a member of both The Nature Conservancy and the Defenders of Wildlife.)

The Clewiston News is published every Thursday.

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