May 5, 2022 - News

New wildlife underpass to help preserve Florida's biological diversity

A wildlife underpass under construction.

The Interstate-4 wildlife underpass being built near County Road 557 east of Polk City. Photo: Ben Montgomery/Axios

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.

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.


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