A new wildlife crossing will connect ecosystems that have been separated for 50 years

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — On I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, construction is nearing completion on one of Florida’s newest wildlife crossings.

The project will connect the northern and southern portions of the Osprey Unit of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area for the first time in half a century.

“We don’t know exactly what the animals are doing here now and what their population size is, but we do know they’re here,” said Brent Setchell, District 1 drainage design engineer with FDOT. “And being able to, you know, cross, you know, those populations is going to be great for genetic diversity, you know, and allowing that fauna to open up new habitats and new corridors of return.”

Setchell gave ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska a tour of the new crossing. The design will allow animals, both on land and in water, to safely cross I-4 by walking safely under the more than 106,000 vehicles that pass through this section daily.

“Florida’s number one panther killer is vehicles, and I’m looking at I-4, and there’s no way to cross unless you’re a super lucky panther or bear,” Paluska said.

“You’d have to be very lucky; you might have until 2 a.m., and maybe the traffic drops, and you might get lucky, but it’s definitely not worth the risk,” Setchell said. .

To protect the fantastical creatures that call Florida home, FDOT officials said they build wildlife crossings with every new road project or renovation. This map shows the location of railroad crossings across the state, with more planned for the future.

“How many more wildlife crossings do you think we could build to protect all of our species? asked Paluska.

“Probably hundreds; with every new road project we look at opportunities for wildlife crossings. Now guides are where we have to look for those opportunities,” Setchell said. “Certainly there are a lot of existing roads where you know, we didn’t have the information that we have now, and so some of them give us a lot of opportunities to make improvements to those existing structures, kind of like we do here with I-4.”

Wildlife cameras are now an essential tool used by FDOT, non-profit organizations, and wildlife advocates to document the secret lives of animals we encounter every day but may never notice.

“It’s proof for you that photos have an impact when they see these animals in the wild and say I can’t believe they’re all here,” said William Freund, chairman of the Foundation. fStop.

Freund founded the nonprofit in 2015 to use videos and images to impact conservation efforts in Florida.

“The saying is a picture is worth 1,000 words. I like to add something to it, and I say ‘a video will take your breath away,’ and the power of videos to not only show that the animal is actually there and to use a specific passage or area, but often looking at this life that they have and the fact that they have emotions,” Freund said. “The power that has in places like Tallahassee or, you know, any place where you can really touch people’s hearts, and they can see the importance of that.”

A recent fStop Foundation video of a dancing skunk has gone viral. They also captured a mother panther, her kittens, a mother bear with her cubs, and the usual suspects, like alligators, deer and raccoons.

The team has produced several award-winning documentaries.

The Need for Connectivity is a 26-minute film on PBS that features the panther “FP224” and his incredible life. Wildlife in Our Backyard is a six-minute film about the foundation’s Share the Landscape project.

There is nothing random about the location of the crossings. A tagged bear inspired the new location for this new crossing.

“The ‘M-34’ bear wandered, you know, along power lines where there was no way to cross I-4. And so this new crossing will make that possible,” Setchell said. . “We have a lot of documentation of the success of these wildlife crossings. They are 80-90% effective. Especially when you have the wildlife fence like we do on this project. Effectively moving wildlife from one side of the road to the other.”

So far, no panthers have been captured on a camera installed near the new crossing. But Setchell hopes that will change.

“The goal for the Florida Panthers is to create three distinct populations of over 250 Panthers,” Setchell said. “And, right now, we have a population that’s less than that. And so our goal is to try to promote that growth. And the only way to do that is to allow them to migrate north. And so this crossing is going to help achieve that.”

The crossing should be completed by the end of the year.