New wildlife underpass to help preserve Florida's biological diversity
You may not even notice it as you speed westbound on I-4 toward Orlando, but a new wildlife underpass being built in Polk County will reconnect wilderness that was bisected by six lanes of road in the 1970s.
Why it matters: It could prove vital to the biodiversity and survival of migrating animals like black bears and Florida panthers.
- When it's completed next year, the tunnel under I-4 — about 21 feet wide and eight feet tall, with a canal connecting wetlands and providing passage for aquatic animals — will stitch together bisected pieces of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in the Green Swamp, the hydrological heart of Florida.
- The Hilochee WMA is part of the 18-million-acre Florida Wildlife Corridor, the network of preserved greenbelts snaking the length of the state that provide safe migratory routes for animals.
Driving the news: Officials with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Wildlife Corridor showed the under-construction passageway yesterday to Brenda Malloy, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
- Malloy was in town to announce $85 million in grants available for similar projects as part of the America the Beautiful Challenge.
- The Biden administration has made it a goal to preserve 30% of America's land and waters by 2030.
Flashback: I-4 was built 50 years ago and now 100,000 motor vehicles speed along its six lanes each day.
- And because Florida is a peninsula, "I-4 is a big barrier to wildlife," Brent Setchell, the Florida Department of Transportation district drainage design engineer responsible for the project, said during the tour. "The deer on this side of I-4 haven't seen the deer on that side of I-4 in decades."
Zoom in: Consider a black bear called M-34, tagged farther south. The bear's telemetry has shown that it migrates north to I-4, then migrates west along the Interstate for miles, evidently unable to find passage across, before turning back south.
- That sort of barrier can limit breeding and stunt biodiversity.
- Providing safe passage also means you'll soon be less likely to hit a bear or a deer on I-4 with your car.
The big picture: FDOT says other similar crossings in Volusia County and on State Road 80 have proven successful and animals are known to use the crossings.
- Camera traps monitoring the area near the new connector have captured a variety of animals at the site already. Such data is used to determine where to place crossings.
What's next: Asked which animals he expects to use the tunnel, Setchell said coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, possum, deer …
- "And someday a panther," said Carlton Ward Jr., a nature photographer and founder of Path of the Panther.
That's not crazy talk: Even though panthers stick mostly to South Florida, two have been sighted recently in Polk County, Setchell said.
- One of them was struck by a car.
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