22 Apr 2012

Final Hike

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

Okefenokee by Carlton Ward Photography
Okefenokee, a photo by Mac Stone for Carlton Ward Photography on Flickr.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Day 97
The rain soaked team treks from the Mixon’s Hammock campsite in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge toward their boat launch. After a short paddle, they will be greeted by family, friends and colleagues gathered at Georgia’s Stephen Foster State Park for an Earth Day celebration and their final event. Photo by Mac Stone.

23 Mar 2012

Deep Creek

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

Tonight we are camped on Deep Creek, south of Maytown Road. To get here we backtracked from our friend Courtney Ward’s fish camp and turned out kayaks up Deep Creek where it meets the St. Johns at the north end of Lake Harney.
Weariness from our week of paddling hung on me today, so I moved at a leisurely pace. Elam moved ahead, intent on filming the beautiful cypress swamp that surrounds Deep Creek in its downstream reaches. I fished along the St. Johns, not being able to resist a likely-looking lilly pad or submerged tree. The sentinel palms on the east bank were perfect subjects for photographs, if only there had been a few more showy clouds around. Must be all the photographers I’ve been slumming around with. At one point recently Carlton furrowed his brow at the sky and declared that the clouds weren’t organized enough for his taste.

At the mouth of the creek two manatees glided past us on their way upstream. Carlton spent an hour photographing a particularly bold limpkin he found. The limpkin is an expert at preying on freshwater clams, deftly plucking them from the shallows, opening the shell and pulling out the meat. Carlton described the bird eating 10 clams, going to the bank to preen, and then returning to feed again. Ten more down the hatch. Preen. This appeared to go on for hours. It was the kind of systematic efficiency that thrills Mr. Ward, the expedition engineer. His pictures will tell the story.

I fussed with photographing the manatees I found at the lower half mile of Deep Creek. Tannin-stained water and sharp reflections of cypress trees made it a mostly fruitless effort. It was more enjoyable to sit quietly in the afternoon light. I hummed a Robert Earl Keen song about living fast or dying slow. A committee of black vultures stood watch in the greening cypress. I assured them I was very alive, only a bit road-worn.

Econ to Deep Creek

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

We spent our second night at Cul Pepper Bend on the Econlockhatchee River. Twice in the night it rained. Morning clouds on the eastern horizon foiled plans to photograph the sentinel palms along the banks of the river. The fish were not biting, so I opted for a bath instead. Lawrence Dimmitt warned me not to use all the hot water as I tiptoed gingerly in the sandy shallows.

At SR 46 Lawrence and the team parted ways. We continued north to Lake Harney. At the mouth of the river we found a flock of 100 white pelicans, huge white beasts all sitting in silence on a shallow patch of ground near the middle of the channel. This was the third flock of pelicans we’d encountered on the St. Johns. On the second day I was transfixed at the sight of a flock of 150 pelicans soaring on a thermal seemingly thousands of feet in the air. These birds are among the many species that follow the shad that migrate into the upper St. Johns in the winter during the spawn. We paused to photograph the pelicans today, finally having them at close range. After a few minutes they filed into the water and swam away from the harassment.
The wind picked up and a rain shower moved across the west side of the lake. I put on a rain coat to keep the spray from soaking my right side. Eventually we turned and the wind, steadily out of the southeast, blew us across Lake Harney. Carlton and I trolled the middle of the lake with light spinning tackle. He landed his first fish of the expedition, a small gar that took his plastic shrimp imitation.

Elam powered along ahead of us as we left Lake Harney and re-entered the St. Johns. I grew lazy with the wind and current helping me along. I fished half-heartedly among a few dock pilings, catching a small bass every mile or so. We passed the mouth of Deep Creek, lined on either side by cypress trees, new needles shining, almost neon green in the afternoon sun. Massive live oak limbs hung out into the river, and palm hammocks lined either bank, slender gray trunks twisting toward the sky. Carlton marveled at the relative wildness of the St. Johns.

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We let the wind take us on past the mouth of Deep Creek to a fish camp owned by Carlton’s cousin, Courtney Ward. By the end of the day we’d covered nearly 15 miles. Even downwind, when we arrived we were exhausted.
Tomorrow we will paddle Deep Creek. We are in Volusia County now, a jurisdiction that is among the most progressive counties in the country in terms of corridor issues. The Volusia Conservation Corridor is an example of locally-focused policies that can build large networks, such as the Florida Ecological Greenway Network. And protection of a sufficiently wide and connected Volusia Conservation Corridor that is effectively buffered from encroaching development and enhanced by building road crossing structures for wildlife including the Florida black bear, is essential for protection of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The next few days will include properties that have been the focus of efforts by Volusia County policy makers and conservationists for three decades. Volusia County includes several critical bottlenecks in habitat for wide-ranging species. A male panther was documented near the upstream end of Lake Harney within the past year and the local Florida black bear population may be increasing in size and providing additional opportunities to connect to other bear populations further south. Gathering the knowledge of the planners and policy makers who worked to secure these corridor opportunity areas will make for interesting discussion over the next week. There is much to learn for all of us here.

21 Mar 2012

Little Big Econ State Forest

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

We spent day 63 camping at Cul Pepper Bend near the mouth of the Econlockhatchee River, which flows into the St Johns River just south of S.R. 46. Our St. Johns River journey is in its second week. We arrived at Lake Winder last Tuesday.
Thus far the St Johns has been smooth. The weather has cooperated. For weeks, it seems, we have had to contend with the wind whenever we took to the water. The wind has lain down for us this past week. We are heading downstream now as well (the St. Johns flows north to Jacksonville).
We appear to have planned our route through the serpentine, many-channeled upper basin pretty well. We have camped almost exactly where we intended to camp when we drew the route back in October 2011. (This never ceases to amaze me about the expedition. I will always remember Carlton and I at 3 am night after night, sitting trance-like in front of Google Earth and cursing nonsensically at the difficulty of routing oneself through 1000 miles, 100 yards at a time). We looked for places with water and trees. We imagined the scene at daybreak and dusk. It appears to be working.
We also appear to have planned our food fairly well, which is notable only in that we organized that aspect of the St. Johns trek without Mallory, who is our most reliable food planner. Mallory’s father, Laurence Dimmitt III, is kayaking with us, however, and his food appears to be perfectly rationed and delicious. Expeditioning just runs in the family, we think. The three of us speculate that Laurence is reporting to Mallory on our various ineptitudes.
We spent yesterday kayaking a portion of our route with Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi. We met Mr. Putnam and Ms. Bondi at Hatbill Park in mid-morning yesterday. A gathering of friends and family was also there to join in. After scarfing a couple creme-filled from Dunkin Donuts, we headed off downstream with our guests. It was a day long in the making. Carlton first met with the Commissioner about the Florida Wildlife Corridor in 2010, not long after the first map was commissioned. Ms. Bondi has been aware of the expedition since early 2011, before her election to AG.
Fittingly, the day was brilliant. The river was alive with birds. Roseate spoonbill, white pelican, bald eagle, meadowlark, white ibis, black-necked stilt and red-wing blackbird were in the mix. We wound our way north, with the oak palm hammocks just visible far to the east and west. The banks of the St. Johns are surprisingly shallow. I imagined the river in wetter times, spreading out over a vast shallow plain, filling the space between the distant treelines and gathering wading birds and waterfowl by the millions.
Our expedition cabinet members seemed to fit in, kicking off shoes and putting some muscle into paddling. The scenery was spectacular, and the fact that none of us have much experience with the St. Johns added to the general feeling of adventure. It is a comfort to know that these two prominent public servants have an understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of Florida’s natural systems. Mr. Putnam and Ms. Bondi demonstrated their committment through their presence yesterday.
We continued north until we reached the mouth of the Econlockhatchee River, which runs east out of Little Big Econ State Forest. We made our camp a little under two miles from the confluence, in a beautiful spot with a broad white sand beach rising out of one of the Econ’s characteristic oxbow turns. Here the river is lined with sentinel-like cabbage palms. In the turns we find holes 12 feet deep. This morning I caught a fat 3 lb. largemouth bass, her belly full of roe. This is easily one of our better camping spots. It will be hard to leave.

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10 Mar 2012

East, West, and always North

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

We are past the halfway point. The past two weeks has taken on an incredible series of adventures. We have been traveling in the land north of Lake Okeechobee, otherwise known as the Northern Everglades. We paddleboarded east down Josephine Creek. We kayaked north across blustery Lake Istokpoga, and ground our way upstream through Arbuckle Creek, all the way to the Avon Park Air Force Range.

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We turned east again through the bombing range and found our way to the Kissimmee River, where engineers have restored natural meanders and habitat to the banks. We swam the Kissimmee and slogged east across the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, where we were shown the stronghold of Florida grasshopper sparrow, arguably the rarest bird in North America. From KPPSP we biked north, to the Latt Maxcy and Destiny properties south of SR 60. From SR 60 we biked north on the Peavine Trail to the Adams Ranch on Lake Marian, on Saturday, one week ago. Mallory rejoined the expedition after too long away. Bad weather on Sunday forced us to hike from the Adams camp west onto Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. Our plan to kayak through Lake Marian, Lake Jackson and Lake Kissimmee en route to Brahma Island was spoiled by 30-40 mph wind gusts out of the northwest. Instead we hiked 10 miles due west to the banks of Lake Kissimmee. In howling wind and three foot chop we struggled across the lake for the toughest two miles of the expedition, finally arriving at Brahma Island just as dark fell. We spent a day recuperating on the island. On Tuesday paddled north again, and again the wind pounded us in the afternoon. Lake Hatchineha and the Creek Ranch became our home for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On Thursday we went on horseback from the Creek Ranch to The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve headquarters near Poinciana in Osceola County. With us were members of the Northern Everglades Alliance, an group of ranchers and conservationists committed to conserving the working landscape of central Florida for water and wildlife. DWP marked the northernmost extent of our movements in the Everglades Watershed. We spent a night with Carlos Vergara at his Camp Lonesome near Keenansville. This morning we began hiking again at Three Lakes WMA, heading east towards the St. Johns River watershed.

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25 Feb 2012

Rough going

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

We are in the beginning of a fairly difficult section of the Expedition, on a couple of fronts. This is physically grueling work on some days. On Monday we hiked from the Hendrie Ranch near Venus to Archbold Biological Station. Walking the station’s firelanes, especially during the dry season, is a chore. We did about 9 miles that day. At the end of our slog we were treated to Archbold’s newly completed dormitory and learning center.
Tuesday was both a mental and physical workout, as we held a couple of workshops in the scrub with Archbold scientists. After lunch we held a round table and interviewed with some media members. Then late at night I was tucked in behind my keyboard, typing. Both Carlton and I were up until 2 and had to be awake before 7. This is fairly typical behavior in times when we have cellular service and wireless access.

Wednesday we covered another 9 miles, and this too was mostly on freshly disced firelanes. It felt blistering hot and dry all day. My water was down to about half a liter by the time we arrived at our campsite, where our provisions were cached.

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Fortunately neither of our two most recent hikes have been under full weight. Thursday we hiked north with packs 13 miles to Josephine Creek, which crosses US 27 north of Lake Placid and connects to Lake Istokpoga.

Toward the end of the day, short of our end point and short on daylight, we had our driver Rick Smith meet us at a shell road to the west of Lake June in Winter so we could switch to bicycling for speed.

This is also a difficult region for long distance movement of animals. Thursday our route included a section of corridor west of the town of Placid Lakes that is absolutely critical to maintaining connectivity north and south across SR 70. It was another interesting opportunity to observe a landscape feature from the perspective of a bear. Three of the past four travel days have included crossings of US 27 and SR 70, two arterial, high speed highways that divide this landscape and produce scores of roadkilled animals each year, including bears.

Facilitating functional connectivity for bears and other species across these two highways are also essential at both regional and state scales. If these roads become increasingly impassable as traffic and development increase, the Highlands-Glades bear subpopulation will become fragmented and one of the best opportunities for connecting conservation lands all the way from south Florida to north Florida will be lost. Fortunately, there are very good opportunities to protect these landscapes and potentially construct wildlife crossings in the future to further facilitate connectivity.

As we hiked Wednesday we became aware of habitat becoming more narrow as we neared the road. Citrus groves lined either side of a small neck of scrub extending north toward SR 70. We stood at the road edge, pondering all this as a particularly careful bear might. Mid-day traffic flew past us. Finally a gap in the delivery trucks and RV’s came and we scampered across to safety.

The FWCE project hinges on these narrow, mostly linear areas that animals are known to use for travel. The corridor we hiked Thursday provides egress for male black bears in breeding season through an otherwise risky, open landscape, ideally so that they can access females and reproduce.

Every day we face challenges as we travel from point to point. Overcoming each obstacle gives us all a sense of adventure. We have been extremely fortunate at many turns. The completion of each day’s route brings a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, not to mention the gratitude we have to landowners and stewards who allow us access. The presence of wildlife and their use of these same routes (which the University of Kentucky bear project and FFWCC panther biologists have documented) is a hopeful thing that keeps me going, in a sense. Walking the corridor on Thursday I passed shiny new signs along Fisheating Creek, delineating a conservation easement covering nearly 30,000 acres of protected working ranch lands. In July 2010 the US Department of Agriculture made this unprecedented investment in the northern reaches of Fisheating Creek, designed to protect the headwaters through the Wetlands Reserve Program. Multiple stakeholders have had to work to find common ground in order to make big deals like the Fisheating Creek WRP happens. It seems like there is a developing recognition among among the private landowners and the conservation community that they have more common interests than either side previously thought. If implementation of the easement works, it will mean there will ways be at least for animals to move in a vital movement corridor.

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22 Feb 2012

Archbold Biological Station

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

We have had two amazing days at Archbold Biological Station, near Lake Placid, Florida. The station’s executive director, Hilary Swain, joined us Sunday night and led us onto Archbold property on Monday. We followed Hilary through about 9 miles of beautiful rosemary scrub and scrubby flatwoods.

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Most who know Hilary would say she generally sets a blistering pace, and her approach to hiking is no different. Fortunately Dr. Swain cannot resist a chance to give lessons in the scrub, so whenever we stopped we were treated to some of the amazing natural history of the Lake Wales Ridge.
Upon reaching the station we were welcomed by Highlands County Commissioner and Archbold board of trustees member Barbara Stewart.

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We spent the late afternoon with two visiting researchers, Zach Forsburg of the Orriane Society and Jennifer Smith of Virginia Tech. Both are conducting telemetry studies on their respective species of interest.
Forsburg is working for the Orriane Society, which is focused on indigo snake research and conservation.
www.orrianesociety.org
We watched Zach track one of his study animals to an abandoned gopher tortoise burrow, where he lead us through the natural history of these amazing creatures.

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Jennifer is working as a post-doctoral researcher for Virginia Tech, helping continue a long-term research project on caracara. Caracara are a large species of falcon, which thrives on the improved pasture habitat that dominates the this region of Florida. We visited a nesting pair of caracara on the Archbold Reserve, a 5000 acre grassland west of the main station where restoration projects are ongoing and a local leases cattle. The pair of caracara watched us suspiciously as we conducted our interview with Jennifer.
Though we had no traveling scheduled for Tuesday, it was as busy a day as we have had since the launch. First we visited the scrub with two of the station’s long tenured lab heads. Dr. Eric Menges of the plant ecology lab guided us through some of the many rare plants of the southern Lake Wales Ridge. Dr. Mark Deyrup of the entomology lab gave us an overview of the insect pollinators that are constantly at work here. A little later in the morning, Reed Bowman of the avian ecology lab introduced the gathering throng of media and expedition team members to the scrub jay research. Reed and his team are responsible for one of the five longest-termed data sets for a single species.
After a big lunch at the station’s new Frances Archbold Hufty Center, we sat for a round table discussion. Panelists included Tom Hoctor, Dr. Swain, Carlton, Julie Morris of Wildlands Conservation, and Thomas Eason, Director of Habitat and Species Conservation for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Before leaving, Dr. Swain led us to the station’s new black bear diorama. We spent a short while explaining the bear project, which I worked on, and talking about the legacy of Dave Maehr and Mason Smoak, for whom the bear diorama is to be named.

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By the end of the round table, after two additional radio interviews, I was ready for a break from the action. Joe Davenport, Tom, Julie and I snuck off to Lake Annie. Though there have been some cool nights recently, and the day wasn’t particularly hot, I had been looking forward to jumping into the lake for too long. After a refreshing dip we took one of the station canoes out so Tom and I could steal a few minutes of fishing before dark. We caught about a dozen largemouth bass and one very nice chain pickerel before calling it a night.

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21 Feb 2012

Highlands County

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

The Expedition has reached Highlands County, in south central Florida. Since leaving the Caloosahatchee River ten days ago, we have traveled across properties with existing conservation easements. Some easements we touched are built around the protection of water in the Fisheating Creek watershed. Other easements we crossed included habitat mitigation banks for the gopher tortoise.
Our trek through the opportunity area for the Babcock to Fisheating Creek corridor was not easy. We found ourselves under heavy packs, trudging down recently disced firelanes under unseasonably warm conditions. We bushwacked for the better part of a day in Glades County. Ultimately, we found our way east from Babcock Ranch through intact habitat all the way to south Highlands County. Multiple black bears that the University of Kentucky (myself included) tracked with GPS collars during a 5 year period made this same trek, making long movements west before ultimately turning around and heading back to Glades County and Highlands County. As we entered bear project stomping grounds at the Smoak Ranch near Venus, Florida I realized I had been walking on conservation land for three days almost continuously, if not for a half an hour spent walking down a road heading east out of Palmdale. Despite the years I’ve spent studying this landscape, until I physically traveled over it I did not fully appreciate the connections that remain. Certainly more can be done to ensure viable corridors for large animals exist in perpetuity, but what we experienced suggested that the habitat in Charlotte, Glades and south Highlands County is still suitable for traveling wildlife. The bear data from Highlands County supports this idea. Through cooperative efforts between ranchers and agencies this part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor stands a good chance of remaining in existence.
My appreciation for the role of the private landowner in conservation began to take shape after coming to know one family in particular, onto whose land we finally crossed at midday Saturday. The Smoak family helped get the bear project started, through a relationship the family had with my former boss, Dave Maehr. Dave was an outspoken proponent of the idea that private landowners were key to the conservation of the Florida panther. As we walked across the Smoak cattle pasture I stepped over the entrance to a burrowing owl burrow. Along the way we found the remains of two unfortunate June beetles, skewered on the barbed wire fence by loggerhead shrike. As we made our way west toward the Smoak camphouse we passed by the pine tree where I caught the first bear of my career.
Tracee Smoak, the wife of Mason, the pilot who died with Dave in 2008, met us at the camphouse. Their three children ran among the pines and clumps of palmetto, chasing each other and squealing. The full circle way of things began to push itself into my thoughts. This is a territory I know and love, and I, like Dave was, take great satisfaction from knowing that it is and will likely always be in good hands.

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09 Feb 2012

Day 16: Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

31 January 2012

We came to Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge under an I-75 underpass designed to facilitate the movement of wildlife and water. We began at Picayune Strand State Forest and hiked north to the highway, beyond which is the Panther Refuge.

We’d spent the previous afternoon meeting with Florida Department of Forestry officials discussing a large-scale water restoration project underway at that property. The wildlife underpasses were integrated into Alligator Alley during its conversion to I-75 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the end of construction there were 36 wildlife underpasses, 8 feet tall, 70 feet wide and 100 feet long. Ten foot chain link fences bracket the road, funneling wildlife toward the passages. It was a massive project with a $77 million price tag.

The investment appears to be paying off. In 1990, biologists estimated that there were roughly 30 panthers left in the wild. Vehicle traffic on Alligator Alley threatened to reduce panther numbers even further. Since the underpass construction panther roadkill numbers on the Alley have dropped dramatically. In the same span of time, through focused habitat conservation efforts by the state of Florida and federal government (including the creation of the 26,400 acre refuge in 1989), population estimates have increased. There is also good evidence that the introduction of Texas cougars in the mid-1990s provided an influx of genes that benefited panther demographics. Today the panther estimate ranges between 100 and 160 cats. Additional underpasses are now located on SR 29, a north-south road on the refuge’s eastern boundary. Engineers have worked with biologists to design smaller, less costly underpass structures that can be integrated on smaller 2-lane roads, which annually claim the majority of panther roadkill.

Many factors have contributed to the improvement in the panther population. The reduction of panther roadkills may also have to do with increased awareness by motorists and better signage and speed limit enforcement. Just this year the FDOT began placing Roadside Animal Detection Systems, solar powered signs that use flashing LED lights to alert drivers when large animals approach roads. Nevertheless, roads are still responsible for killing panthers. Forty-three cats have been killed on Florida roads since 2009, not including the two cats that have already died in 2012. This challenge notwithstanding, the construction of Alligator Alley underpasses is a successful mitigation effort, allowing the flow of wildlife between large conservation properties across an interstate highway. The construction of a four lane, heavy traffic highways slicing through panther and other species habitat would have had devastating effects on the ecological integrity of adjacent conservation lands, but the numerous and well designed underpasses greatly enhanced species connectivity under the expanded highway. Although panthers were the primary focus for designing the underpasses, many other species have been documented using them including Florida black bear, bobcats, alligators, turkey, and deer. The underpasses also facilitate the flow of water southward to the Picayune and Fakahatchee strands. Continuity with adjoining properties seems to be a theme in this landscape. Multiple agencies must continue to work together to meet these challenges.

For me, the I-75 underpasses are a symbol of the conservation biology movement in the early days. Using what data there were available back in the late 1980s on the panther, scientists and policy makers helped engineer an effective solution. It was not an easy or inexpensive process, but appears to have worked well. I remember one of the first lectures I heard my late graduate school advisor and committed conservation scientist Dr. Dave Maehr give. In it he showed a slide of one of the underpasses and talked about the difficulty of getting the structures paid for, a process he was involved in as the leader of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission’s (which is now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or FFWCC) panther research team. Dave matriculated at the University of Florida under Dr. Larry Harris, one of the central figures in the field of conservation biology in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became recognized as a scholarly discipline. Both Dave and Dr. Harris were shrewd negotiators, and both were capable of compromising in order to achieve meaningful conservation goals.

Dr. Harris oversaw the work of many other students who went on to become influential figures in Florida and across the globe, the most prominent of which is Dr. Reed Noss, who in the late 1980s was the first to propose network of connected conservation land in Florida, and has since written many articles and chapters on wildlife corridors and designing conservation land networks to conserve biodiversity. In the last twenty years, other students of Dr. Harris including Dr. Tom Hoctor and Dr. Dan Smith have worked on projects like the Florida Ecological Greenways Network and the prioritization of roadways for future wildlife underpasses to continue the work towards protecting a statewide network of functionally connected public and private conservation lands, aided by a future comprehensive system of wildlife crossing structures across Florida’s large network of highways.

Another of Dr. Harris’ former students was waiting to meet us at the underpass. Darrell Land of FFWCC eventually replaced Dave Maehr as the panther recovery team leader after Dave left the agency to pursue a Ph.D. in conservation biology, and has been in the position now for nearly 20 years. As we approached the underpass in the bright morning we saw Darrell walking toward us, along with Kevin Godsea, the refuge manager for USFWS, and Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife. Together the group represented many years of experience in panther biology and policy decisions. As if to remind us of the need to maintain our effort and our focus despite the challenge and high cost of protecting the species and its landscape, a perfectly preserved pair of panther tracks, one male, one female, were waiting in the dried out mud of the underpass.

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02 Feb 2012

Expedition Route

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

See a map of our route for this week of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. We hope to be able to add these to our blog each week.

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