Florida Wildlife: Environmental groups praise Gov. DeSantis, Cabinet for voting to buy panther habitat
Environmental groups across the region are celebrating one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet voted to purchase more than 10,000 acres of prime panther habitat in Devil's Garden.
In total, the state agreed to spend about $79 million on several pieces of land throughout the state.
Although the land is in Hendry County, it's important to Collier and Lee because the parcel provides prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther.
"It will help with the conservation goal of connecting habitat from Big Cypress National Preserve to Hendry County," said Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation. "It allows for expansive habitat for a wide-range species like the panther to cross the Caloosahatchee River."
Kent Wimmer, with Defenders of Wildlife, said Thursday was one of the best days in Florida preservation history.
"(Devil's Garden) has been targeted for a long time," Wimmer said. "All the projects the governor and Cabinet approved are great. The combination of all these projects at the same time is probably one of the best days for conservation in years."
Well south of the Caloosahatchee River, Devil's Garden is north of Big Cypress National Preserve and east of Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest.
The name Devil's Garden stems from the Seminole Wars of the 1800s, according to various history books and online accounts.
It was occupied by an indigenous leader who went by the English name of Sam Jones.
He was so despised by U.S. forces that they labeled him "the devil," and the land is the last place Jones was known to live.
"It’s a necessary step," said Gladys Delgadillo, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "Habitat conservation is essential to panther recovery. The main point is about the panther and keeping in mind it’s very vulnerable. We haven’t done an influx of Texas genes in a while so inbreeding could become a problem again."
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists say there are between 120 and 230 panthers living south of Lake Okeechobee.
There were only a few dozen in the 1990s, before a team of biologists released several female Texas cougars into the Florida population.
The genetic injection seems to have worked.
One of the next steps in panther recovery is to get the cats to move north and across the Caloosahatchee River.
"It provides a lot of connectivity for wildlife as well," said Gladys Delgadillo, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "One of our main goals is to save the Florida panther and there’s been lots of documented use by panthers on this land. It’s a huge property, almost 4,000 acres of the property is wetlands."
The state will pay $28.5 million for the Devil's Garden piece.
Lindsay Cross, with Florida Conservation Voters, said she hopes the purchases are a sign of more conservation money coming down the road.
"I hope that’s a sign that we’ll get funding for Florida Forever at $100 million for this year and that we can grow it in future years," Cross said.
The sellers said the deal was attractive because it helps preserve Florida's ecological history and even culture.
“Alico is committed to our culture of conservation, and we are pleased to partner with the state of Florida to protect sensitive lands, water, and wildlife habitats for the Florida panther," CEO and president John Kiernan said in a statement. "We believe this land sale will positively impact the Southwest Florida community and environment.”
Steve Buczynski, board member with Hendry Glades Audubon Society, said it will even help protect water quality in the historic Everglades system, which stretches from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.
"Protecting places like Devil’s Garden in perpetuity helps us ensure open space for wildlife like panthers and healthy wetlands to protect us from both wildfires and harmful algal blooms," Buczynski said. "Thanks to Southwest Florida’s legislative delegation for their support of Florida Forever funding this and every year — it is paying real dividends for our region."
Eastern Collier is a panther stronghold, with hundreds of thousands of acres of prime habitat in places like the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Still, that's not even a third of what's needed to recover the endangered species.
One of the goals in the Endangered Species Act is to have three separate populations of 240 breeding adults.
"Every time we can save habitat here it’s super important, but we are so far away from our goals for recovery and the habitat conservation that needs to happen to recover the species," Delgadillo said. "Right now we don’t even have enough panthers for one population."
Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.
This story originally published to news-press.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.