HENDRY COUNTY, Fla. — Florida is home to one of the largest big cats in North America. The Florida Panther population was decimated by hunting and has been on the endangered list since 1973.
Although they aren’t being hunted now, they're instead squeezed by habitat loss. But the state of Florida is taking steps to protect land for the panthers and other species, through the acquisition of protected land.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor is a network of land that helps connect wildlife habitat up and down the state. But of the 18 million acres in the corridor, only 10 million acres is protected land. But this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a $141 million investment to expand the corridor by more than 42,000 acres across six properties.
“Today’s investments bolster our efforts to restore the Everglades and preserve important natural resources for future generations of Floridians,” said Gov. DeSantis. “While we work to protect important resources, we are also ensuring that Florida’s working farms continue to thrive and support the state’s food security.”
The largest of the properties, 17,000 acres, is in the former Alico Ranch called Devil’s Garden Florida Forever Project in Hendry County.
"That's a really vital wetland and upland habitat, that core in the Florida Wildlife Corridor and it is prime Florida Panther habitat," said Carlton Ward Jr., the founder of WildPath.
It is estimated that there are only about 200 Florida Panthers left in the wild. Ward says the best thing we can do for the Panther is give them access to more territory throughout Florida.
"For the past 50 years or more, the Florida Panther has basically been the South Florida Panther,” said Ward. “And as long as it is limited to that relatively smaller patch of land between Naples and Miami, it's going to be on life support, because there is not enough land to sustain a genetically viable population for the long term."
With continuation of protected green space along the wildlife corridor, the hope is the Florida Panther population will expand to the north of the Caloosahatchee.
"There is big hope that they will keep moving north in the state,” said Ward. “And by saving these swaths on the map, we are preserving that opportunity."
Not only are the Panthers facing a shrinking habitat, but the threat from humans.
Just this week, a car hit and killed a young male panther near the I-75 toll plaza in Collier County. According to FWC, vehicle crashes killed eight panthers in 2023, all in Collier and Hendry Counties. And with panther habitat and human development become interwoven, Ward says it becomes even more important for protected habitat.
"More than 1,000 people are moving here every day and there is lots of pressure to convert these farms and ranches into new subdivisions, new roads, new developments," said Ward.
Since 2021 the state has protected more than 160,000 acres, but Ward says we need another 800,000 acres by the end of the decade to keep up with growth.
"We need to keep this pace going for the next 7 years,” said Ward. “And at the end of that time, if we continue to protect 100,000 acres or more every single year we will be in a situation where the land lost to development is about equal to land that is being conserved."
Since, 2019 the state of Florida has spent $1.25 billion on land acquisition through the Florida Forever Program, including $850 million specifically for the Florida Wildlife Corridor.