|Florida Panther Tracks found outside Orlando|
|Written by Marjorie Holt|
|Wednesday, March 16 2011|
The benefits of a land-preservation program: The great news is that Panther tracks have been found in at the newly opened Charles H. Bronson State Forest located in eastern Seminole and Orange Counties.
11:56 PM EDT, March 15, 2011
Oh, and looking for further examples of what may be the first certified Florida panther tracks in Central Florida.
Those are all doable at the newly opened Charles H. Bronson State Forest, 10,945 acres of open space in east Seminole and Orange counties assembled largely with funds from a land-preservation program that will be shut down this year if Gov. Rick Scott has his way with the state budget.
The new forest and its recently expanded next-door neighbor, Little Big Econ State Forest, now comprise more than 20,000 acres where the Econlockhatchee and St. Johns rivers come together.
About the same time that state agencies were signing off earlier this month on the documents needed to open the Bronson forest to the public, a pair of state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employees inspecting a new boundary fence came across animal tracks so perfectly imprinted they knew immediately what had made them.
They called FWC supervising biologist Tom Shupe, who has worked in Central Florida for 22 years, and said, "You aren't going to believe this!"
Shupe had just walked out of a Walmart on the way to a meeting, but he turned around, went back inside and bought a bucket, a gallon of water and some plaster of Paris before driving straight to the source of the excitement.
"We get calls almost daily from people who think they saw a panther or tracks," Shupe said. But, until then, none of the reports of the highly endangered species during his time in Central Florida had been backed up with definitive proof.
The panther tracks found along several hundred yards of Bronson forest fence were the first Shupe had seen anywhere. The sand was level and smooth as a result of the fence building, and it had rained the previous night, leaving the surface with a mottled but fine texture.
"They were such perfect, pristine tracks that if you had time to prepare the ground for tracks you couldn't have done better," Shupe said. "It's almost like he wanted to say, 'Hey, I'm here.' "
Shupe and the two FWC workers made "excellent" plaster casts. But Darrell Land, leader of FWC's panther team in Naples, needed little more than a quick look at a photo to confirm the track's maker.
"Those are smoking-hot panther tracks," said Land, who estimated that they were just a couple of hours old when found and, judging from their size, made by a male.
Land said that, among the 100 to 160 panthers living in South Florida, a male occasionally takes off for a solo jaunt that can span years and hundreds of miles. Some of those journeys end badly: One panther was shot in Georgia three years ago. Another was found dead at Tomoka State Park in Volusia County in 2008. And a big, well-known panther was killed on Interstate 4 southwest of Orlando in 2007.
Such panthers typically wander north along the west side of Lake Okeechobee, then veer east in a path parallel to the dangerous I-4 before swinging north to follow the St. Johns River, traveling at night and chowing on wild hogs.
The tracks found March 2 in the Bronson forest were 22 miles from Orlando City Hall in a straight line.
There are two main reasons that so much property so close to a major metropolitan area could have been purchased and set aside as public forest.
First, the land fell outside of the "urban services" boundaries in both Seminole and Orange counties, shielding it from the conventional subdivision development that has paved so much of Central Florida during the past decade.
Second, individual tracts were bought largely with money flowing through the state's Florida Forever program, which, along with a predecessor program, had been funded since 1991 with $300 million annually for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands and for other conservation measures.
Lands acquired for the Bronson forest cost about $95 million; of that, nearly $64 million came from Florida Forever, $12.5 million from Orange County, and nearly $19 million from the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service. The 4,569 acres recently added to the Little Big Econ forest cost $50 million; of that, $37.5 million came from Florida Forever and $12.5 million from Orange County.
Florida Forever, for years the most aggressive land-conservation effort in the nation, is headed into a legislative session this spring during which it could face elimination because of the state's budget shortfalls. Funds were cut off two years ago because of the deteriorating economy, then replaced last year with the much-reduced amount of $15 million.
Through the years, the Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever programs have acquired nearly 2.5 million acres for conservation; what remains on the state's purchase-priority lists are smaller pieces of land within and between the bigger tracts, such as the Little Big Econ and Bronson forests.
Andy McLeod, government-affairs director for the Nature Conservancy in Florida, said his group is hopeful but sober-minded about whether lawmakers will opt not to follow the governor's lead and instead put more money aside for the land-buying program.
"We think any funding is a good investment in Florida's future," McLeod said. "Purchasing the connections and in-holdings will make the big landscapes more viable for species."
Robert Christianson, director of land acquisition and management for the St. Johns River Water Management District, began back in 1992 meeting property owners and exploring the ecosystems that are now finally open to the public as the Bronson and expanded Little Big Econ forests.
"It has been a labor of decades to assemble these properties," Christianson said. "Scientists tell us it's critical to have large, contiguous tracts likes this. But we are still a long ways from achieving what I would call the minimum, critical mass of land area to support large, ranging animals."
At least one such critter — a very rare one, at that — has been checking out Bronson State Forest.
Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel
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