News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Environment

Alico Road is going to connect to SR82, invading panther territory

 A “Wildlife Crossing” sign at Florida Gulf Coast University, located on Alico Road. Photo by Serena Tartaglia.
A “Wildlife Crossing” sign at Florida Gulf Coast University, located on Alico Road. Photo by Serena Tartaglia.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service of Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at satartaglia5233@eagle.fgcu.edu.

In May, preliminary construction began on Alico Road in Fort Myers. It is unknown when the construction will be completed, but the ultimate goal is to connect SR82 to Alico Road, creating a direct path from Lehigh Acres to Fort Myers. That path will cut through endangered Florida Panther territory.

The National Wildlife Federation reports that there are only 120-130 Florida panthers left in the wild.

“Workers have two ways to travel: Daniels or Colonial from Lehigh Acres,” said Brian Hamman, the Lee County Commissioner for District Four. “If we can take Alico Road and connect it up to Sunshine Boulevard in Lehigh Acres, we can create another route from Lehigh Acres to get people to get to work.”

That road could come at a price.

“No matter what path is chosen, the road will destroy and fragment primary panther habitat, secondary panther habitat, as well as adult breeding habitat,” said Julianne Thomas, the Senior Environmental Planning Specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Panther habitat is already sparse in that area of Estero. Florida Gulf Coast University was built in 1997, and in 1994, it was identified as panther territory by the (now-obsolete) Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

“After working with environmental groups, government agencies, and other land owners, we settled on the current route,” said Hamman. “During the design phase, which we are working on now, we will be looking at the water flow and panther habitat, and they will try to design around those areas or in a way that will have the least impact.”

Any impact could affect the future of the species. Female panthers have only been documented in South Florida, so it is assumed that that is where all breeding occurs.

“Protecting the panther is important because panthers are an umbrella species, meaning when we protect the panther, we are also protecting about 25 other connected species,” said Thomas.

A single male panther needs about 200 square miles to survive, so the plants and the animals that also live there are protected.

“Protecting the environment is very challenging because we are going up against the developers. The counties are more concerned about tax payers, and panthers don’t pay taxes,” said Thomas.

While the construction company that is going to connect the two roads has not been announced, Alico Road saw this before, when FGCU was built.

“The panther ain’t never been there, ain’t comin’ back,” said Ben Hill Griffin III, in response to the county commission’s study in 1994. Griffin donated the land on which FGCU was built. “You look close enough, you may find a dinosaur track out there, but I don’t think the dinosaur is coming back again.”

Hamman says any further studies on panther habitat on Alico Road would be unnecessary.

“If we wanted money from the federal government to help pay for the road, we would have to do a Project Development and Environment Study, and they would take about five years just to finish the study. We needed this road five years ago,” said Hamman. “To do another study, when our permitting will take the environment into consideration, would be a disservice to the community.”

Florida panthers are threatened by habitat loss and low genetic diversity because the population is so small, but panthers getting hit by cars is the leading cause of death.

Three panthers died due to vehicle collisions in the first week of October,” said Thomas. “We would like Lee County to build fencing across the road, and build some kind of crossing for the animals, either under or over the road.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that “Currently, there are 60 wildlife crossings or bridges that have been modified for use by panthers on Florida’s roads. Panther deaths caused by vehicle collisions have been sharply reduced in areas where crossings and fencing are in place.”

“We’re very familiar with that kind of construction,” said Hamman. “Those details will be fleshed out during the design phase, which will look at the best place to put the crossings, and what the right treatments are.”

The SWFL Conservancy reports that public hearings about the road will be held later this year, and early next year, in 2022.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service of Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at satartaglia5233@eagle.fgcu.edu.

Copyright 2021 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.