Florida’s animal crossing aims to break barrier of I-4

Florida's animal crossing aims to break barrier of I-4

POLK CITY — M34, a typical black bear who became an inspiration, was stuck.

He had hopscotched north from Sebring between dwindling patches of trees until he came to Celebration.

If Florida was an entire world, M34 had reached its equator: Interstate 4, the legendary highway that conveys sunburned tourists between the gulf beaches and Disney World. I-4 is the concrete ribbon that ties up Tampa-to-Orlando commuters. It’s a battleground for presidential candidates.

To many, the highway is a perpetual horror story — especially to a 3-year-old black bear.

Wearing a collar that tracked his movements, M34 plodded in the shadow of I-4 west towards Lakeland. He drifted close to the pavement, only to pull back.

The black bear known as M34, as seen by University of Kentucky biologists in October 2009. [ ROBERTA PICKERT | Archbold Biological Station ]

He covered many miles in June 2010, traversing a stretch of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area east of Polk City, where the tall pines hardly cloak the roar of SUVs and 18-wheelers.

M34 eventually turned around, walking back towards Lake Okeechobee, nearly 100 miles south of Celebration.

More than a decade later, the interstate remains a deadly barrier for wildlife. But where M34 once tramped, road building crews now work hot, dusty days to lift I-4, providing the first major crossing for animals under the highway between Tampa and Orlando.

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The work dovetails with a movement among conservationists — in part inspired by M34 — to preserve a corridor of continuous green space across the Florida peninsula.

“For 50 years we’ve had these plants and animal communities that have been isolated because of I-4. It’s the rare animal that’s crossed that,” said Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. Last year the foundation won state recognition for its efforts — and conservation funding — with the passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.

The I-4 crossing is part of a $71 million redesign of the interchange where the highway meets State Road 557, said Brent Setchell, a district drainage design engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation. The agency has not broken out the cost for the wildlife crossing alone, but Setchell estimated it at roughly $8 million, mostly for fill dirt.

A wildlife crossing is seen under construction beneath Interstate 4 in Polk County, east of the interchange with State Road 557.
A wildlife crossing is seen under construction beneath Interstate 4 in Polk County, east of the interchange with State Road 557. [ CARLTON WARD JR. | WildPath ]
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In May, Setchell gave a tour of the site to representatives of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation and Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the Council on Environmental Quality, a federal group that advises President Joe Biden on conservation. A Tampa Bay Times reporter accompanied them.

Groaning bulldozers clawed up earth beside I-4 on a humid afternoon as the tour group arrived in two caravans. Setchell showed posters of conceptual drawings and laid out a timeline, which calls for construction to be complete by next spring.

The visitors donned hard hats and stepped into the shade below a bridge that will replace I-4′s existing six lanes.

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The wildlife crossing is an underpass, 61 feet wide at its opening and 8 feet high, Setchell said. Fencing around the surrounding highway will herd animals towards the passage.

The state has installed wildlife crossings in other areas, he said, including Southwest Florida, where they are supposed to help endangered Florida panthers. Panthers — estimated to number 230 adults at most — are routine hit by cars. Twenty-seven were found dead in Florida last year, according to state data, 21 of them killed by a vehicle.

This year, drivers have killed 15 panthers, including one on the Polk Parkway south of I-4 a few weeks before the tour.

Rapid development continues to seize much of the state, but Central Florida stands out. Orlando and Tampa squeeze the heartland from either side, populations spilling into subdivisions off I-4.

The pressure puts conservationists on the clock. Every year, fewer tracts of land are available for saving their corridor.

“We will not get a chance to conserve a piece of property once it has rooftops on it,” Lauritsen said.

Just east of the crossing, he said, green spaces along US 27 that were viable for conservation a couple of years ago are no longer.

Daniel Smith, a research associate in the biology department at the University of Central Florida, said the crossing under I-4 is one of the few spots left in the middle of the state connecting tracts of conserved land.

Roads, he said, fracture natural landscapes, which splits animal populations and narrows their gene pools. Wildlife crossings allow groups of animals to mix, benefiting species’ diversity.

Related: Florida to dedicate $30 million to saving manatees amid die-off

Take black bears: Smith said they roamed continuously across Florida before development splintered them into distinct subpopulations.

An estimated 4,050 bears lived in Florida as of 2015, according to the most recent figures available from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Like M34, some make long forays to find territory or food, crossing roads along the way.

At least 345 bears were killed in Florida last year, according to state reports — 287 of them on roads.

Bears and panthers are not likely to be routine visitors to the I-4 crossing, Smith said. Deer and bobcats, he said, are more common in the area. Smaller animals such as armadillos could use it, too.

The wildlife crossing will not work on its own. To make it successful, Smith said, officials need to preserve more land near I-4, so animals can reach the passage.

“It’s doable,” he said. But as growth dominates Central Florida, “it’s challenged — it’s very challenged.”

Lauritsen said he hopes the I-4 crossing catalyzes more support for conservation among officials in Polk and nearby counties such as Orange, Osceola and Lake. The Wildlife Corridor Foundation has identified almost 18 million acres of land that could form a continuous corridor. Of that, 9.6 million acres are already conserved.

Outside the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, most of the territory around the crossing is an “opportunity area” — meaning it’s not protected yet. State or local governments could buy properties outright or secure conservation easements, leaving the land available to farmers or ranchers but off-limits to development.

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That swath of Florida has a “wonderful mix” of swampy, forested wetlands and pine flatwoods, said Joe Guthrie, a carnivore ecologist at the Archbold Biological Station. North of I-4, the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve does not currently host a bear population, but scientists believe it could.

Leaders of the Wildlife Corridor Foundation have made several sweaty treks across the state, hiking, biking and paddling to raise awareness and show how a continuous passage is possible. Guthrie has joined on several occasions.

He has another tie to the I-4 crossing, too, as one of the University of Kentucky researchers who first tracked M34. Guthrie called it “deeply satisfying” to see how the discussion around conservation in Florida has developed — stirp, at least in part, by M34′s journey.

All those years ago, he said, he could never have predicted that the young bear might play a part, however small, in spurring the redesign of the highway that once seemed to block its progress.

And as for M34? After several months, the tracking collar fell off — as it was programmed to — and the bear disappeared into the woods.

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