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What panthers need most: central counties' corridors PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Monday, April 27 2009

Originally appeared on News-Journal Online

April 26, 2009

What panthers need most: central counties' corridors

In a recent letter to the Orlando Sentinel, Conservancy of Southwest Florida's Andrew McElwaine warns that the Florida panther will die without smarter policies that secure key habitat. Still harboring large vertebrate landscapes, central counties have a stewardship onus they can't rightly disown. In fact, the very open space Orange County targets for the Innovation Way tech corridor (32,000+ acres) was for many years on the state's CARL acquisition A-list, so valuable is its ecology, habitat and strategic link in the vast connective chain reaching from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Johns River. This region's biological importance merits a strong plan to protect the Upper Econlockhatchee Mosaic and provide safe movement by wildlife. This was promised to us with Innovation Way. 

Massive development in one county affects the ecology in the next; more so, absent connective set-aside lands and if wildlife areas get blocked and cut up.

Unfortunately, thanks to the small size, narrowness and fragmenting of the proposed "stewardship" strips, Orange County Planning's Environmental Lands Stewardship Program would not steward wildlife. The local planning agency voted against this flawed ELSP. County commissioners should demand a real one.

Our neighbors in Seminole and Volusia counties can help urge Orange County commissioners to reject this toothless "stewardship" plan for Innovation Way. It is a developer's dream. All Floridians have a stake in the fauna in its cross hairs. We need the major north-south corridor preserved.

Lone panthers are known by authorities to roam tracts in Central Florida. A puma sign was documented in Orange in 1989 and at Disney Wilderness Preserve and Reedy Creek in 2007. Because it requires proof -- track casts, scrapes, cached kills, photos -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discards anecdotal reports. (Editor's note: After reported sightings near the Tomoka River in 2008, state park officials examined tracks and said they were "99 percent sure" each was made by a panther.) In fall 2008, residents near Moss Park (within the Innovation Way study area) logged three sightings in seven weeks. The agency acknowledges extant habitat in east Orange viable for panthers.

Without green haunts for him, we'll lose this majestic catamount from our state.

So rare, so elusive is he as to approach myth. Yet even despite the shocking 23 deaths in '08, this species persists where backwoods gnarls and palmetto grazing grounds support deer and feral hogs and give space for males to found territories.

Biologists mainly have a bead on their whereabouts. They collar, track and record each tan-gold body found lifeless by roads; but they can't utterly predict the cunning and tenacity of a big cat fighting for its life. Per Jurassic Park "chaos theory": life finds a way. That's my hope for Puma concolor coryi. While CSF and Defenders of Wildlife lobby and educate, citizens also must love panthers enough to cede them what they need: habitat. Yes, license plates fund research, but they don't secure key patches, or stop deadly land-use conversions by local governments.

One federal study notes that, to survive, the panther must expand its range beyond the Caloosahatchee River. That means central counties must pony up corridors. Innovation Way could harm this animal's chances. We need a real stewardship program for the citizenry, for posterity; and -- not least -- for that beleaguered feline following the stars, his instincts, and the music of the Florida night.

Eagan, an artist and conservationist, lives in Winter Park.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, April 28 2009 )
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