“The panther is going to have to help us save Florida.”—Cary Lightsey, whose family has been ranching in Florida since the 1850s and now protects essential parcels of the Florida Wildlife Corridor
A male Florida panther travels through an oak hammock at the edge of a cypress strand at Babcock Ranch State Preserve near Ft. Myers. The first female panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973 was tracked by state biologists to a nearby trail in November 2016. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / National Geographic CreativeIn November 2016, a biologist’s camera trap snapped a photo of a female panther in Florida’s Babcock Ranch Preserve. It was the first since 1973 to be spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River, which marks the northern boundary of this endangered species’ current breeding range. (Learn more in the Photo Ark and part one of this blog Camera-Trap Image of Florida Panther Brings New Hope to Conservationists).
After hearing the news, I called several ranchers who had hosted our team during the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. While panthers and ranchers have a history of conflict, I have also seen potential for a partnership where ranchers and panthers can help each other protect their common ground from the development that threatens them both.
My first call was to Aliese Priddy to ask her about the function of ranches in panther recovery. Priddy is current vice chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. During the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, the team and I traveled from Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to Priddy’s JB Ranch, the first private ranch of the trek, positioned just north of four million acres of contiguous public land.
“Florida cattle ranches provide exceptional wildlife habitat throughout the state, not just for panthers but for all wildlife,” Priddy told me. “Without ranches, panther recovery would not have progressed as quickly as it has. Ranchers are experienced land managers, and it is through their stewardship that these private lands are able to support their livestock in addition to native species.”
The Priddys have lost cattle to panthers, and their experiences have helped shape federal programs that have partially compensated them for their losses and will reduce the burden for other ranchers who continue supporting the panther’s recovery.
For the past 12 years, the conservation of Florida ranches has been the unifying theme of my photography. It is from this perspective that I came to focus on the Everglades headwaters, Florida black bears, the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and most recently the Florida panther.
The more time I spend thinking about the panthers and ranches, the more I see how their futures depend on one another. I wanted to further explore that synergy in December after learning that the breeding range of panthers could soon be recovering into the rangelands of the Northern Everglades.
The next rancher I called was legendary cattleman Alto “Bud” Adams Jr, 90. We had camped at his family’s ranch in the Everglades Headwaters on Day 47. When I called, Bud told me, “I would like to have panthers on my place if it wasn’t too costly,” alluding to the potential for panthers to eat calves.
I described the new program that recently paid the Priddys for livestock lost to panthers. “Good,” he replied. “If we had a resident population of panther, we would be of greater importance to saving the wildlife of Florida, and there’s certainly something in there for everybody.” Regarding the female panther at Babcock, he said, “If the panther’s north of the river, I would say he has pretty good prospects of it covering the peninsula. There’s nothing else to stop him.”
He’s right, at least for now, because the Florida Wildlife Corridor is still connected. But that could change quickly as ranchers like him are pressured by estate taxes and growing families to sell their land, paving the way for roads and development to push further inland.
My next chat was with Cary Lightsey, who’s 64. We had paddled to his family’s Lake Kissimmee ranch on Day 48 on the 2012 expedition. The Lightseys have ranched in central Florida since the 1850s and have protected nearly 90 percent of their land with conservation easements. I asked Cary about the female panther north of the Caloosahatchee. He said, “The panther is going to have to help us save Florida,” adding, “people understand panthers need to have big areas to live in and if we develop these areas and lose them, we’re going to lose the panther too. I feel like the panther can help us keep these big tracts.”
I had last seen Cary in Bartow at the September meeting at the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. He recalled that day, saying, “I had three different people tell me either their sister or brother or stepmother is going to make them sell the ranch to the developer so they’d have enough money to pay the other person off. And all three of these people said, ‘Well, if you give me a chance to do an easement I’m going to pay your part of it off and keep the land like it is.’ It shows you how close a lot of these ranches get to being lost.”
The more I look and listen, the more clearly I see how much ranchers and panthers have in common, facing the same common threat: the rapid, sprawling development that is consuming lands on which they both depend.
A New Way of Looking at Things
One new study, “Florida 2070,” projects that Florida’s population will grow from 20 million today to nearly 35 million by the year 2070. The study—by 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the University of Florida—includes a “Trend 2070” model showing that if development follows current trends it will consume five million acres of natural and agricultural lands. It also presents “Alternative 2070,” which shows that by protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor we can accommodate 15 million new residents while preserving five million acres of wildlife habitat and a future for Florida agriculture.
Looking at the 2070 maps, we can see that panthers need ranch land to recover, and ranchers, facing relentless development, need panthers so that policy makers will be moved to adequately fund conservation of the ranchers’ land.
The biggest barrier to recovery for the panther is insufficient funding for land protection. In 2014, Floridians voted with a 75 percent majority to pass the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, designed to invest one-third of real estate transaction taxes into land conservation. Based on the current economy, the amount should be $800 million per year. But lawmakers have chosen to divert most of these funds into existing agency budgets and land management rather than protecting new land.
Take Florida Forever, the state’s hallmark land conservation program. It received $300 million per year starting in 1990 under the leadership of governors from Bob Martinez to Jeb Bush but hasn’t received more than $20 million per year since the current governor came into office. We have similar problems in Washington. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund should receive nearly $1 billion annually from taxes on oil and gas leases. But those funds often flow to general revenue rather than their intended purpose for projects like the Everglades Headwaters National Conservation Area or potential expansion of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The Florida Department of Agriculture’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) provides tremendous opportunity. At the September meeting where I had seen Cary Lightsey, there were dozens of other ranchers making presentations to join a list of more than a hundred properties prioritized for conservation easements. Conservation easements strip away the development value of the land to ensure the land will always remain a working farm or ranch. JB Ranch and the Adams Ranch have recently participated in the program, and my family filed an application for our Hardee County ranch earlier this year.
The last rancher I saw at the meeting was Derek Hendrie, 27, who completed agricultural studies at the University of Florida and is working with his grandfather Jim Hendrie continuing the heritage at their Highlands County ranch. Derek included in his slideshow a photo of a male panther captured on his property by one of my camera traps. He said, “As the panther population and territory continues to grow and expand to other parts of the state, ranchers and biologists need to work together now more than ever to create and implement a management plan to ensure that not only the Florida panther can continue to grow and thrive, but also so that Florida cattle ranches can thrive, profit and continue to provide essential habitat to all species of Florida wildlife.”
RFLPP has $30 million in this year’s budget, which allows meaningful progress. But we need to invest ten times that much in easements annually to balance the 175,000 acres per year, or 20 acres per hour, we lose to development.
The female panther at Babcock Ranch calls us to make a choice about the future of Florida. Do we want to bulldoze and develop what’s left beyond the boundaries of our parks? Or do we want to save the Florida Wildlife Corridor and provide a future for panthers, cattle ranches, hunting and fishing, the Everglades, our water supply and the state’s $120 billion agricultural economy? If lawmakers will honor the will of voters and fully invest in conservation, we can follow the path of the panther and example of the rancher to help save wild Florida.
Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic explorer focused on the story of the Florida panther. He has trekked 2,000 miles through Florida’s wildest areas to raise visibility for the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. His photographs are available through CarltonWard.com and his gallery in Tampa. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard.