Letting Florida's wildlife roam. Proposed `corridors' would link state parks

Florida's oldest residents -- its panthers, bears, otters, and other wild creatures -- are having trouble getting used to the newcomers. Each week, some 10,000 people move to the state. It's a rate of growth that is ``literally overwhelming everything,'' says Bill Partington, who heads up the Florida Conservation Foundation here.

But there's one thing Mr. Partington and other conservationists are determined to shield from the flood of humanity: the spectacular array of animal life native to this most tropical part of the United States. This can best be accomplished, he says, by establishing a ``statewide, comprehensive habitat system for wildlife.''

``Wildlife corridors'' are what Partington has in mind.

In essence, the corridors would establish connecting links of open land between the wildlife preserves and parks that now pepper Florida. Animals, then, could migrate and roam without constantly running up against civilization in the form of superhighways, shopping malls, and tightly packed housing tracts.

``It's the oldest idea in conservation,'' says Larry D. Harris, a wildlife specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and chief theorist behind wildlife corridors in the state.

The long-established chain of wildlife preserves set up along the flight paths of migrating waterfowl offers a clear precedent for such a system, he notes. What people are recognizing now, says Dr. Harris, is that ``we've got to treat mammals as we've treated birds'' -- give them the means to move about in accord with their instincts.

This means breaking with the century-old conservation tradition of forming discrete, unconnected wildlife sanctuaries or parks, he adds.

In Harris's view, the sanctuary concept has encouraged the creation of inbred animal populations who are losing their heartiness and are prevented from natural foraging. What's happening to the dwindling Florida panther in this state, for instance, ``is of a piece'' with what's happening to the grizzly in Western parks or to the white rhino in African wildlife preserves, he says. All these species require much greater range than a single park can provide. A male Florida panther, for instance, normally roams over an area of 400 square miles.

The possibility of creating an interconnected natural system of corridors and preserves clearly exists in Florida, according to Barry Allen, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park. Half the state is still forested, he points out, and the corridors could make use of such existing lanes of open land as power-line rights of way or abandoned rail lines.

Partington emphasizes cooperation with private landowners, suggesting various ways of making the corridors idea palatable to them -- trading development rights for tax breaks, for instance. He explains that wildlife corridors are compatible with many existing forms of land use, such as pulp wood operations and even some kinds of residential development, as long as low density is maintained.

``We're going to try to leave as much of the land as possible in private hands, with some zoning restrictions, if you will,'' says F. Wayne King, curator for herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) at theFlorida State Museum in Gainesvilleand another proponent of the corridors idea.

A late-April conference in Winter Park will bring together supporters of legislation to create a statewide council to study the corridors idea and make recommendations on implementing it. Backers are hopeful things will move quickly from there, since the response from all interested parties -- state and local officials and even private landowners -- has been favorable, they say. They point out, too, that polls of Floridians show there is strong support for protecting the state's wildlife.

The panther, a creature on the brink of extinction, offers a case in point as to what a corridor system might accomplish. Only 22 of the animals are known to exist. If you draw a 20-mile radius around every city in the state having 15,000 or more inhabitants, there will be only three or four places where the circles don't intersect, Dr. King points out. In a couple of those remote areas you'll find the remaining panthers, he explains.

Wildlife corridors, enabling the panther to roam farther afield, might be the lifeline needed to rescue the large cat, but King isn't optimistic.

``The Florida panther is so far along that, doing everything we can, we might not be able to save it,'' he says. Nevertheless, the whole point of the corridors program, he contends, is to prevent other animals from having to face the predicament of the panther.

For his part, Harris feels the panther can be saved. There's ample information available about the animal's migratory tendencies, he says, so corridors could be designed to meet the cat's needs.

While no one can guarantee that wild animals will use the corridors, an understanding of such animals' habits, together with the engineering know-how to bridge such obstacles as highways, makes it probable they will use them, says Harris.

Behind it all lurks a note of urgency. ``The big fear,'' says Dr. Allen, ``is that if it [the corridor plan] doesn't happen in the next five years, it could be too late.''

Harris predicts it will indeed happen, and within five years. And lots of other states -- faced with similar needs to protect their wildlife -- will be standing by to see how Florida puts the corridors idea into practice, he adds.

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