By Jenn Domashevich
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that Florida Panthers wearing radio collars had crossed the Caloosahatchee River near a disposal easement owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a request was made for the Corps to relocate their easements, which would allow the property to be purchased and preserved as a panther crossing habitat.
Through the collaborative efforts of numerous federal, state and private organizations, the 1,278-acre American Prime property in Glades County, a property described as a "keystone tract" in the single most important area in the state for ensuring the natural recovery of Florida Panthers, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy May 16, 2012.
"By relocating the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' easements, we will preserve this critical panther habitat crossing and allow the current population to expand up into the Kissimmee River watershed," said Col. Alfred Pantano, commander of the Corps' Jacksonville District. "I'd like to applaud the Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Wildlife Refuge Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, notably Paul Souza, and the Corps' Karl Nixon, for making this dream a reality. We look forward to continuing this collaborative effort to conserve property that is critical for providing Florida Panther crossing habitat."
The Corps had two 50-acre disposal easements along the waterfront of the American Prime property and was asked by the USFWS to relocate their easements to the western boundary of the property so that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRSC) could encumber the property with a Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP) easement, purchasing the development rights to the property and saving the land from any future urban development.
The Corps prepared all the necessary documents to facilitate the easement exchange that will allow for the creation of the proposed "panther corridor," which will enable panthers to disperse from habitats restricted to south Florida.
Without the combined coordinated efforts of all the agencies, the land was scheduled to be sold on the steps of the court house the following day, May 17.
"The successful completion of this land acquisition effort makes me very proud to be part of the multi-agency team, our organization and our mission," said Karl Nixon, Deputy Chief of the Real Estate Division for the Corps' Jacksonville District. "It reaffirms to me that, when people unite for a common goal of protecting valuable habitat, we can make a difference."
This acquisition will encourage the natural recovery of the Florida panther population by providing habitat where animals can den and stalk prey, and migrate from southern Florida to areas north of the river.
"To prevent extinction the panther population must grow, yet the current habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River is at maximum capacity," said Shelly Lakly, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida in a press release issued May 22. "That's why buying this land -- the land known to be the route out of south Florida -- was so critical. It opens up a future. The most at-risk property in a dwindling panther corridor was purchased right before foreclosure. It would have been extremely difficult to protect this critical panther corridor if this property was lost."
The purchase was covered by approximately $2 million from TNC in private philanthropy, and $1.5 million each from the USFWS and the private entity that purchased the property encumbered by conservation easements. Additionally, NRCS provided $1.5 million to purchase a conservation easement on 718 acres of the property, and $200,000 was provided through Acres for America, a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Walmart.