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The changing landscape of eastern Lee and Collier counties and what it means for the panther

Joe Frank, an elder in the Seminole tribe, and his wife Ronda Roff, a scientist and passionate about saving the wildlife in Florida, stand next to a wildlife crossing along Immokalee Road, East of Immokalee.
Andrea Melendez/WGCU
Joe Frank, an elder in the Seminole tribe, and his wife Ronda Roff, a scientist and passionate about saving the wildlife in Florida, stand next to a wildlife crossing along Immokalee Road, East of Immokalee.

Editor's note: The following story is one of several being published on WGCU.org today in conjunction with a companion piece  -- "Preserve or Develop? Race against time to protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor" by Jimmy Tobias at "The Florida Trident,"  a local investigative news outlet focusing on government accountability and transparency across Florida.

The old roads heading east had long been a quiet expanse of row crops and cattle. Though mining operations at times abated the calm, there was still beauty to be found in the stillness of citrus groves and cows.

Dotted throughout these vanishing agricultural expanses are largely untouched ecological gems — woods, wildlife and wetlands.

Development, in the eastern sections of Lee and Collier counties, is supposed to be limited, abating impacts development has had on water resources and threatened and endangered species.

Today, these once old roads heading east are flanked by one gated community after the other. Some have catchy names reminiscent of what development often chases away: Think panthers, birds, trees and preserves.

Welcome to the fastest growing part of Southwest Florida, as the state adds on average of more than 1,000 people a day.

More on the Wildlife Corridor


While many welcome the growth, saying it spurs the economy and provides additional workers, others see it quite differently: More people means more cutting down of trees, more cars on the road and more deaths of big cats.

Cars pass on Corkscrew Road, Lee County Florida. This area is farmland that is proposed to be the Kingston Development. Right now it is prime panther habitat.
Amanda Inscore Whittamore/WGCU
Cars pass on Corkscrew Road, Lee County Florida. This area is farmland that is proposed to be the Kingston Development. Right now it is prime panther habitat.

Environmentalists say planned communities — Kingston in eastern Lee and Bellmar in eastern Collier and both the size of small cities — could hurtle the Florida panther from the Endangered Species List to extinction.

The building of these two communities is on hold because of permitting and legal challenges. But construction crews continue to line these once rural roads, clearing trees and laying water lines for other planned communities already given the green light.

A giant sign boasts a soon-to-be feature attraction at a community under construction: Indoor pickleball. If that's not enough of a draw, there's a brand new Publix supermarket nearby and a winery soon to open.

“Local and state government have been in a rush, racing each other to see which one can destroy the things that make Florida special. And unfortunately, it’s the wildlife and the rural lifestyle that is paying the cost for it.”

Joe Frank, an elder in the Seminole Tribe.

“Local and state government have been in a rush, racing each other to see which one can destroy the things that make Florida special," said Joe Frank. "And unfortunately, it’s the wildlife and the rural lifestyle that is paying the cost for it.”

Frank is an elder in the Seminole Tribe. He talks as he is standing alongside a road cutting through the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Okaloacchee Slough, known as the OK Slough, is a vast and important watershed with 32,000 acres of state forest. It is about a mile to the east.

Extra from WGCU: The Wildlife Corridor

Also about the Wildlife Corridor


Directly to the west are pine islands, these are naturally elevated lands where panthers and other land animals find refuge during the wet season.

“You know, it's a special area, there's not too many other places in the world like. For those of us that grew up here, you know, we love it," Frank said. "...It helped sustain us. So, we kind of hate to see it be destroyed by greed.”

Frank's wife, Rhonda Roff, is a scientist. She's deeply concerned about the environment, looking for signs if a panther has been nearby.

“ I want to see prints," she said. "I want to know that they're there. I want to know that they're healthy and that they have a good food sources. Seeing prints is encouraging especially if you see adult and, and kitten prints."

We don't see any paw prints, but we do see a constant reminder of why the panther is struggling to survive: Cars and trucks speed down this paved throughway, Immokalee Road, which turns into County Road 846.

"I think people need to stop driving so fast," Roff said.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at least 46 Panthers have been killed by cars and trucks on this very road.

One of three wildlife passages on Immokalee Road, east of Immokalee, Florida.
Andrea Melendez/WGCU
One of three wildlife passages on Immokalee Road, east of Immokalee, Florida.

Below where we are standing is an under-the-road wildlife crossing— a 24-foot-wide and 7-foot-tall steel culvert — allowing animals safe passage through just small portions of the wildlife corridor.

“Lots of things use these, these passages. Bear, deer gators, little guys, too, you know, rabbits and hogs." said Roff. "So, you know, it's a good thing. We just need more of them.”

Once prolific through the state of Florida and beyond, Native Americans revered the Florida panther as an animal of great spiritual importance. Panthers, some believed, were the first creatures to walk the earth.

But hunting and bounties per pelt nearly did the panther in. A mere 10 to 20 roamed Florida in 1967.

But there is incredible story of ecological recovery when eight big Texas cats — close species DNA relatives — were brought to Florida to mate with the remaining Florida panthers in the 1990s. Today, an estimated 200 Florida panthers roam the state, though mostly here, in fast growing Southwest Florida.

This celebrated feat may not last much longer. On average, there are many more panthers killed each year than there kittens born.

In the last 10 years, there have been 113 known births, according to on-line records from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. By contrast, at least 250 big cats — and some kittens — were killed by passing vehicles in that same timeframe. The direness doesn't stop there.

Large Fences and a flashing yellow light over a panther crossing sign warns drivers to be on the lookout for wildlife over the next 7 miles along Highway 29 in Collier County, Florida.
Amanda Inscore Whittamore/WGCU
Large Fences and a flashing yellow light over a panther crossing sign warns drivers to be on the lookout for wildlife over the next 7 miles along Highway 29 in Collier County, Florida.

Add in train strikes, a single gunshot death and a multitude of other deaths like starvation, intra-specific aggression where the cats kill each other as well as many unknown deaths and known maladies and these deaths amount to more than 300 over the last 10 years, according to fish and wildlife on-line records.

A little-known and mysterious disease has also affected some of the animals, leaving them debilitated, some too weak to walk correctly.

“Just having grown up here, you know, you feel protective of it,” Frank said.

Frank is 70 and has spent a lifetime living and working in many areas that are now considered part of the Florida wildlife corridor.

As a boy, his grandmother would take him fishing down in the mud flats — areas that have now been replaced by sea walls on Marco Island.

During their adventures, Frank's grandmother would share cautionary tales about respecting the land — stories that had been passed down for generations.

"Some of these things, you know what she said, are coming true. So I guess these were stories that were told for hundreds or thousands of years. So you know, I get involved in this because I’d like to see it protected, to make sure the prophecies I grew up hearing don’t come true.”

Frank cannot share these cautionary tales with people outside of the tribe, not even his wife. But as a scientist Roth thinks she understands.

“Well, they were cautionary stories. If this happens, be ready for this," he said. "In her time she saw Florida change quite a bit. And I know, in my time, I've seen it change quite a bit."

WGCU multimedia journalists Andrea Melendez and Amanda Inscore Whittamore contributed to this report.

Joining forces to produce segments in an extensive look at the Florida Wildlife Corridor and conservation across the state of Florida was the Florida Center for Government Accountability with writer Jimmy Tobias in The Florida Trident, WGCU Public Media, Central Florida Public Media(previously 90.7 WMFE), and theOviedo Community News.
Copyright 2024 WGCU

Eileen Kelley
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