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Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

BRIGHTON — Lorene Gopher strolled about her “kitchen” beneath the large cookfire chickee in her backyard, not far from the main road through the Brighton Reservation. She gave the boiling swamp cabbage a stir with a long spoon, nudged the pair of roasting gopher turtles – upside down and still in their shells – over the flames and furrowed her brow at the cooking stew beef and the pork cracklings. She watched with a smile as fellow Tribal members Nancy Shore, Jenny Shore and Martha Jones made a mountain of frybread, some of it “pumpkin, the sweet kind,” Lorene noted.

Suddenly, Lorene looked up, and there they were.

Photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr., filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and bear biologist Joe Guthrie came walking into the chickee.

“Those are the guys who are walkin’ ‘cross Florida,” she smiled. “My son told me we ought to have a traditional meal for them, and it’s almost ready.”

With a piece of pumpkin bread squeezed in one hand, Ward aimed his camera at the scene. Calling themselves the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, the three wilderness enthusiasts, along with conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, trekked from Flamingo at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula to the Okefenokee area just north of the Florida line – 1,000 miles in 100 days.

The travelers educated Floridians about the dire need for wildlife corridors to facilitate the natural migrations of animals in a state that averages 353.4 inhabitants per square mile. They documented the trip through photography, video streams, radio reports, daily updates on social media and digital networks, and a host of activities for reporters, landowners, celebrities, conservationists, politicians and other guests.

They are committed to connecting the remaining natural lands, waterways, working farms and ranches, public and private parklands, river systems and greenways – natural and God-made – from the Everglades to southern Georgia. The Seminole Tribe of Florida land holdings, particularly the 81.972-square-mile Big Cypress Reservation and the 57,090-square-mile Brighton Reservation, provide major linkages for this system.

“We are very excited about visiting the Seminoles,” said Stoltzfus, who shot a two-hour public television documentary on the expedition. “They control vast areas of wilderness habitat absolutely necessary for wildlife to use. They have been great stewards of their lands and live in harmony with the panthers and bears, bobcats and deer. We can learn a lot from the Indians.”

I first heard the term “wildlife corridor” in the mid-1980s when I began hanging around a very captivating University of Florida professor named Larry Harris. Loud, bombastic, full of curse words, epithets and precious pearls of original wisdom, Harris was the veritable guru of the Florida environmental movement, the world expert on wildlife issues in a changing world. His actual job was a professor in the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation – a job I presumed was created just for him. His wildly popular classes, open to all majors by design, were held in an auditorium and were attended by thousands of students. His free time was spent as a trusted adviser to governors, senators, wildlife managers, rangers, biologists, surveyors, cattlemen and the characters who track Florida panthers. Not one for decorum or brown-nosing, Harris said exactly what he thought, even when he was 35 years ahead of his time and few could grasp what he was talking about.

Most who crossed paths with Harris consider him a genius. He was the first person I ever heard talk about global warming. Everything he said made complete and utter sense. Yet in many cases, Harris was the first person to say it. Once on a Walt Disney World-sponsored Swamp Camp event, he camped out in the Disney Wilderness Preserve with a group of dignitaries including Chairman James E. Billie. Chairman Billie talked about hurricanes and how the medicine man managed to lead everyone away from the raging winds and rain. Amazingly, no Seminole Indians are known to have perished in any hurricane.

“It was the drop in barometric pressure,” Chairman Billie said. “He could feel it on the hairs of his arms. He knew it was time to get out.”

Harris shook his head up and down with a wide smile. He leaned over and whispered to me, “Smart man. I knew it. I knew he was gonna say that.”

His 1984 book The Fragmented Forest is the bible of biogeography and biotic diversity, a classic that explained – then changed forever – the way people thought about and practiced wildlife conservation. He called for the integration of habitat fragmentation with landscape ecology and reserve design.

The name “Larry Harris” became permanently attached as an expert to any discussion of habitat fragmentation, landscape ecology, rising sea levels and of course, wildlife corridors. It was Harris who coined the phrase, and it was he who convinced wildlife officials to build animal crossings under Alligator Alley, SR29 and other roads that bisect known panther habitats – arguably the most successful wildlife conservation decision in Florida history.

In the spring of 1987, with the assistance of Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) biologist Charlie Cook, of Lakeland, and the nonprofit Save the Florida Panther organization, Harris secured a large, captive-born male panther and, as cars and trucks buzzed by, had the animal videotaped strolling through an I-4 traffic underpass.

“The road builders say animals won’t go through underpasses, that the noise will scare them,” Harris said. “Here’s proof they are wrong.”

Former Gov. Bob Graham used the video in his victorious race for the Senate that very year, campaigning with the promise to make the underpasses a critical part of the ongoing Alligator Alley reconstruction plans. It worked. Taxpayers put up $20 million to build 36 underpasses, and road-kill-littered “bloody 84,” the top killer of panthers, has not marked a panther death since the crossings were completed.

“If the Florida panther keeps dating his sisters and his mother, if he can’t make it north to mix it up with the healthy gals from neighborhoods that stretch all the way to Texas, he’s gonna get tiny, get all sorts of disease, his immune system will be shot all to hell, his tail will grow crooked and he (won’t be able to reproduce),” Harris once told me.

“Got to connect all those neighborhoods; Let those genes run all the way from the Everglades to the Georgia line, under the roads, across the rivers, around the towns, through the wilderness to grandmother’s house we go!”

I can actually hear him now, roaring like a madman, waving his arms while arguing theory, and then, when he is in incredulous mid-description about what will happen when Florida sea levels rise 1 foot and millions of people flee for the rural Florida inlands, he’ll aim his forefinger just above his ear, pull an imaginary trigger and slump his head downward as if forever silenced – flamboyant Harris’ unique way to show his frustration and impatience with the rest of the world to occupy his special brainwave.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition made two stops on Seminole lands: on Feb. 5 at 2,200-acre Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Reservation and on Feb. 16 at Brighton. They heard Tribal poet laureate and veteran cattleman Moses Jumper Jr. recite his classic poem, Indian Cowboy Dreams. They visited Brighton’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School. They spoke to numerous Tribal cattlemen, old-timers who remember the wild cattle, the Florida Scrub cattle – no ticks, no worms, no flies.

And, with ranchers all around South Florida complaining about panther predation on their herds, none of the Seminole cowboys found the wild Florida panther a problem.

“You might lose a calf or two in a year,” Tribal member Willie Johns said. “No big deal.”

Speaking with Tribal leaders, team members learned that the Seminole Tribe has long supported wildlife recovery efforts. More than 20 years ago, the Tribal Council passed resolutions protecting the Florida panther and establishing a gopher tortoise preserve on Tribal lands. For many years, the Tribe has been the only landowner in the Big Cypress area to allow unlimited access to research biologists with the Florida Panther Recovery Team. At the Big Cypress event, President Tony Sanchez Jr. gave an eloquent description of the Seminole Tribe’s close connection with Mother Nature and Her animals, promising to establish and maintain an official “Florida panther corridor in honor of Carlton and the team.”

The main goal of Florida panther recovery is to protect remaining large landscapes and functional corridors to assist in re-establishing a northern Florida panther population. Another goal is to connect the four major bear populations across Florida.

“The Seminole Tribe plays an important role, a critical role in the protection of wildlife and wild places in this region of Florida,” bear biologist Guthrie said. “This has been very inspiring. We can all learn a lot from the Seminole people.”

Too often, Big Government has ignored the Indians’ wishes in dealing with wilderness issues. Lady Bird Johnson wanted rural Snake Road to feature numerous curves, in spite of the danger. The Harney Pond provided excellent drinking water for Seminoles in the area until pumping changed the water table.

“Why, the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) went in and illegally removed 58 of our burial sites. We bury our dead above the ground,” Johns said. “We complained, and then the Corps said, ‘Well, what d’ya want us to do?’

“I said, ‘Put ‘em back where you got ‘em!’”

They didn’t.

“The private rancher is not the bad guy. People generally don’t realize that these ranches are havens for wildlife,” said Guthrie, who said numerous private landowners paddled, rode horses and bikes or just jogged along with the expedition as it traveled through Florida’s greenways, finally ending on April 25 at the headwaters of the Suwannee River in the Okefenokee wilderness.

In the mid- to late-‘80s, Walt Disney World animal curator Cook worried that his company’s development plans might include wildlands within the precious Reedy Creek watershed just southeast of the Magic Kingdom. In a creative response to what he considered a growing threat, he instigated a series of unusual camping expeditions in and around the area.

Cook, another visionary in the mold of Harris, wanted to promote the concept of environmental land preservation to Disney executives as a necessary component of their ambitious future development plans. He and I worked for hours designing assemblages of particular people and activities to further the central cause: the protection of Reedy Creek and its watershed corridor.

Within four years, Cook and Disney sponsored 13 overnight expeditions, each with an eclectic group of participants including wildlife biologists, architects, journalists, teachers, students, developers, artists and zoologists. Also in attendance were high-level Disney managers and dignitaries like Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath, wildlife artist Ernie Simmons, folk artist Tom Gaskins, panther researchers Dave Maehr and Melody Roelke and even Harris.

Chairman Billie attended the first Swamp Camp, as the eco-events were called, and blazed the original trail to the campsite through a thick pop ash swamp; Independent Bobby Billie and family attended a subsequent camp.

Around 200 people, including members of the Audubon and Sierra clubs, hiked and canoed through swamps and prairies to a campsite, where a fire was built, food was prepared and hours of discussion and exploration ensued. Musicians such as Florida state fiddle champs Elan Chalford and Wayne Martin provided entertainment.

State environmentalists agree that Cook’s Swamp Camp project was a direct progenitor to Disney’s April 1994 purchase of the 8,500-acre Walker Ranch, a pristine corridor property at the headwaters of the Kissimmee River and home to the Southeast’s largest collection of American bald eagles. As mitigation to wetlands issues in other developments, Disney turned over the property to the Nature Conservancy, along with $40 million to create the Disney Wilderness Preserve. A key component of the massive, ongoing Everglades restoration project, the preserve is bordered by the new Florida town of Poinciana and is open to the public. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition rode horses 17 miles through the old ranch for a press event midway through their trek across the state.

“Dr. Larry Harris and the Disney Swamp Camps – that is where it all began,” Cook said. “At the time, I’m not sure we knew exactly where we were going, but we knew what needed to be done. We knew large parcels of land must be preserved…and connected.”

In the spring of 1986, a 195-pound male black bear from Big Cypress embarked on an astounding journey through southwestern Florida. Captured as a nuisance animal in a rural area, the bear was equipped with a radio collar, released where he was found and recaptured 100 miles north of his former range.

For 11 weeks, the bear wandered more than 200 miles under the gaze of scientists. He traveled a northerly course through six counties, crossed eight major highways and nearly a dozen other roadways, swam the Caloosahatchee River and crossed numerous canals, fences and farmlands. As he moved along abandoned railroad tracks and skirted densely populated suburbs – even loitering and observing the fireworks near a large Fourth of July outdoor picnic – he negotiated bee yards, turkey pens and numerous roadside garbage containers. Ultimately, he had to be recaptured by state wildlife personnel near Lake Placid.

“The young southern Florida male had moved about as we would expect any bear to do. He moved to find food, he moved to locate cover. As a young male, he may have been moving to emigrate – a difficult task considering the fragmented habitats of the eastern United States – or he may have moved to reproduce, to share southern Florida genetic material with an uncollared central Florida female he encountered just before he was removed from the wild. Forces yet to be understood by biologists stimulated the bear to move, and he went even though there was no logical path to follow.”

Those are the beginning paragraphs of New Initiatives for Wildlife Conservation: The Need for Movement Corridors, published by Defenders of Wildlife in March 1989, written by Harris and myself. He called me up late one night and ordered me to come immediately to Gainesville.

“I have a writing project for you,” is all he would say. “Should take one or two days.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the full week I spent at Harris’ house changed my life. It started when I asked him why his front yard was all black.

“Experimental prescribed burn,” he said with no further explanation.

After the roaring and arms waving was over, after the late-night brainstorming sessions were history and the moaning and groaning and ringing phones stopped, after the Dumpster was filled with paper wads, I was amazed at the document we produced. Straight from Harris’ amazing mind, it makes a convincing, comprehensive case for wilderness linkages – the very message the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is carrying more than 25 years later.

“Everybody in the wildlife corridor world has read that,” said team member Guthrie, who documented another bear years later that roamed more than 500 miles in two months.

Here is how it ends:

“We need more than big linkages between big areas for big mammals; we also need citizens and administrators who understand the need for movement at all scales. Fencerows connecting woodlots and abandoned acres are just as important to mid-western wildlife as streamside buffers are to western mountain species. Greenways accommodating linear, outdoor recreation such as jogging, bicycling, horseback riding, canoeing and cross-country skiing can be as useful for wildlife as they are for people.

“We need not just analysis, but application; not just policies, but practical programs; not just individual actions, but integrated action. We do not need to set the United States aside as a tribute to the past; we need to develop new linkages that will function in the future.”

In a eulogy to Harris, who died Aug. 15, 2010 of complications from a lung transplant and heart valve replacement surgery, Kenneth Dodd listed his many accomplishments, noting, “His efforts to promote natural resource conservation have consistently been based on, and strengthened by, a foundation of sound scientific principles.”

Animals move. So do great ideas. From Harris’ dream to 1,000 miles in 100 days, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is raising the bar for wildlife conservation.


Click on the following link to read the aforementioned paper, New Initiatives for Wildlife Conservation: The Need for Movement Corridors.

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