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.
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.