Highlands County

The Expedition has reached Highlands County, in south central Florida. Since leaving the Caloosahatchee River ten days ago, we have traveled across properties with existing conservation easements. Some easements we touched are built around the protection of water in the Fisheating Creek watershed. Other easements we crossed included habitat mitigation banks for the gopher tortoise.

Our trek through the opportunity area for the Babcock to Fisheating Creek corridor was not easy. We found ourselves under heavy packs, trudging down recently disced firelanes under unseasonably warm conditions. We bushwacked for the better part of a day in Glades County. Ultimately, we found our way east from Babcock Ranch through intact habitat all the way to south Highlands County. Multiple black bears that the University of Kentucky (myself included) tracked with GPS collars during a 5 year period made this same trek, making long movements west before ultimately turning around and heading back to Glades County and Highlands County.

As we entered bear project stomping grounds at the Smoak Ranch near Venus, Florida I realized I had been walking on conservation land for three days almost continuously, if not for a half an hour spent walking down a road heading east out of Palmdale. Despite the years I’ve spent studying this landscape, until I physically traveled over it I did not fully appreciate the connections that remain. Certainly more can be done to ensure viable corridors for large animals exist in perpetuity, but what we experienced suggested that the habitat in Charlotte, Glades and south Highlands County is still suitable for traveling wildlife. The bear data from Highlands County supports this idea. Through cooperative efforts between ranchers and agencies this part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor stands a good chance of remaining in existence.

My appreciation for the role of the private landowner in conservation began to take shape after coming to know one family in particular, onto whose land we finally crossed at midday Saturday. The Smoak family helped get the bear project started, through a relationship the family had with my former boss, Dave Maehr. Dave was an outspoken proponent of the idea that private landowners were key to the conservation of the Florida panther. As we walked across the Smoak cattle pasture I stepped over the entrance to a burrowing owl burrow. Along the way we found the remains of two unfortunate June beetles, skewered on the barbed wire fence by loggerhead shrike. As we made our way west toward the Smoak camphouse we passed by the pine tree where I caught the first bear of my career.

Tracee Smoak, the wife of Mason, the pilot who died with Dave in 2008, met us at the camphouse. Their three children ran among the pines and clumps of palmetto, chasing each other and squealing. The full circle way of things began to push itself into my thoughts. This is a territory I know and love, and I, like Dave was, take great satisfaction from knowing that it is and will likely always be in good hands.