Current Trail Conditions

updated 10/24/22

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp:

Trails are inundated with water.

The entire 12-mile trail is clearly marked with letters to help you gauge your distances. The Purple trail connects CREW Bird Rookery Swamp trail to the CREW Flint Pen Strand trails. The Purple trail distance is 3.1 miles to the main parking lot at CREW Flint Pen Strand starting from the intersection above point E. The Purple trail is currently dry.

Be aware that alligators will warm themselves on the trail. Please do not attempt to force them to move when you pass.

CREW Marsh Trails:

Trails are inundated with water.

CREW Cypress Dome Trails:

Trails are inundated with water.

Check HUNT DATES. Trails are open to everyone during hunting season, however, if you prefer a trail without hunting, try the CREW Marsh Trails around the corner on Corkscrew Rd.

Low sections of trails are beginning to fill with water.

CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails:

Trails are inundated with water.

The Red, Yellow, Blue and Orange Trails experienced wildfire (3/26/22) and the SFWMD are in the process of repairing the firebreaks.

Check HUNT DATES. Hunting takes place north of CREW Flint Pen Strand trail systems. Please stay on the designated trails. The trails are narrow and winding with some sand and roots/rocks.

Trail distances are calculated from the Main parking lot. The Purple trail hike is 3.1 miles to CREW Bird Rookery Swamp and 3.1 miles back. If you choose to hike the “loop” of CREW Bird Rookery Swamp trail, you will add 7.5 miles to your distance.

Home for wildlife

Visiting CREW? For directions and information about  the CREW Trails, click here.Barred Owl

The CREW Land and Water Trust is a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of the water resources and natural communities in and around the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW).

The CREW Trust assists in land acquisition, land management, and public use of this 60,000-acre watershed with its partners: the South Florida Water Management District, which owns and manages the land; and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which monitors wildlife and hunting and provides law enforcement on CREW Project lands. CREW is the largest intact watershed in Southwest Florida, straddling Lee and Collier Counties.

 

Red shoulder hawkThe CREW Trails are the perfect place to visit year-round. Each season brings dramatic changes to the plants and animals due to variations in water levels. Come see baby alligators and pine lilies blooming during the fall, hawks and flycatchers nesting in the spring and the swallow-tailed kites soaring overhead each summer.

 

 

Environmental Education

The CREW Trust welcomes all school groups to explore the CREW Trails with us, and engage in focused environmental education activities that help children learn to love and understand the natural world. We work directly with Collier and Lee County schools as well as many home school groups and private schools in southwest Florida.

Students hike, explore, learn about plants and animals, test water quality, collect data on ecosystem parameters, dip-net, journal, learn about prescribed fires, and more. Each trip is custom designed the group and grade level.

The CREW Trust offers the following field trips for K – 12 students:

  • Walk Through a Watershed Trip (designed with and for Collier County 3rd grade classes)
  • Watershed and Wildlife Walk – adapted for all ages, K-12
  • Middle School – LIFE program (in conjunction with the FL Department of Environmental Protection)
  • High School Watershed Trips – Biodiversity, Wetland Ecology, Fire Ecology, or the Legacy Trip
  • Home school/Specialty Trips – we’ll design for your needs

CREW Trust is proud of its excellent working relationships with local universities and professors that enable us to engage students in field experiences, research projects, and civic engagement/service-learning opportunities on the CREW lands.

FGCU students admire a rat snake.

If you would like to plan a field trip out to CREW please email Julie Motkowicz at education@crewtrust.org or call 239-229-1088. 

Visit CREW

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp on the far northwestern portion. Photo by Brandon Stossel

The CREW Trust has worked diligently with the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure public access and recreation opportunities on these public lands we call CREW.

There are exceptional recreational opportunities for people of all ages on over 36 miles of hiking trails, with more planned in the future. The CREW project now has four trail systems open to the public, two located off of Corkscrew Road (County Road 850), one off of Bonita Beach Road and one located off of Immokalee Road (see map above).

For more information about visiting each of the trails, click the links below.

CREW Marsh Trails

CREW Cypress Dome Trails

Bird Rookery Swamp Trails

CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails 

Caracara Prairie Preserve Trails

Free Downloadables: CREW Trail Guides & Education Materials

CREW Trail Use Guidelines

For more information about other recreational activities, click the following links:

Geocaching

Camping

Horseback Riding

Hunting

CREW Trust Announces Members Only Week

Is your membership current?

Mark your calendars!

Check with Allison@CREWtrust.org to make sure your membership is current so you can take advantage of early registration for all CREW Trust programs.

Member’s only week is starting October first this year, so be sure to mark your calendars and check back often to CREWtrust.org for more information on all our programs.

Season Preview

Back by popular demand – the Fall and Spring Wildflower walks with Roger Hammer. Enjoy new birding programs and carnivorous plant Specialty Walks. A whole new line-up of Strolling Science Seminars, exciting new family friendly programs and overnight experiences.

Final details

Members will have the first week in October to sign up ahead of the general public. Stay on the lookout for our pop-up programs throughout the year, such as our seasonal Wet-Walks and Moonlight tours.

CREW Trust Season of Events will go on sale at 8 AM, October 1st, 2022. General admission will begin on October 9th at 8 AM.

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail is OPEN!

The South Florida Water Management District has finished up the construction projects at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail and now the entire 12-mile loop is open and ready for your visit!

Thanks for being patient as he northern trestle bridge crossing was repaired and several degraded culverts were replaced.

Designed and constructed by Nelson Marine

Construction Underway at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail

The South Florida Water Management District, CREW’s land managers and primary land owners, will close the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp trail after the boardwalk until further notice for construction.

Please respect the posted signs at the end of the boardwalk so construction efforts can be efficient and completed on time. We will notify you again when the trail work is complete and the entire trail is open.

For now, you may enjoy the 1/4-mile crushed shell path leading to our 1500-ft. boardwalk with wheelchair accessibility remaining open for visitors! 🚜

Or you may prefer to visit one of our other three excellent trails. Check out more detail on our website here: CREWtrust.org/visit-crew

Inspiring Photos from CREW

By Allison Vincent – CREW Trust – May 27, 2022

We hope you enjoy browsing through some of the information linked below relating to our wild inhabitants of the CREW Lands. Remember that the balance we strike with these preserved lands guarantees not only our access to land and water resources, but theirs too!

Great Horned Owls

A roosting pair

photo by Bill Zaino

Brown Thrasher

Get to know them in your backyard

photo by Bill Zaino

Swallow-tailed Kite chick

Nesting season

photo by Dick Brewer

Gopher Tortoise

Trekking the dry upland habitats

photo by FWC

Eastern Meadowlark

Preferred open habitat

photo by Bill Zaino

Snowy Egret

Enjoying the dry down with spurts of rain

photo by Dick Brewer

Red-shouldered Hawk chicks

Renested by the Conservancy of SWFL

photo by Bill Zaino

River Otters

Family outings

photo by Dick Brewer

Bobcat

Swaying in the sun

photo by Joanne Bruggemeyer

Pale Grasspink Orchid

Take nothing but photos

photo by Dick Brewer

Coyote

Rare sightings reward the patient observer

photo by CREW Trust Volunteer

Barred Owl

Taken April 2022 during the dry season

photo by Bill Zaino

CREW Work Never Ceases

By Allison Vincent – CREW Trust – 5/20/2022

Partners, SFWMD and FWC clear fallen trees off the designated hunting trails

SFWMD – Shredding at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails

At first glance, shredding – or mechanically grinding a wider path – may seem like a drastic step in the wrong direction. Walking the uneven ground the land management machines leave in their wake, it’s easy to focus on the current destruction instead of the intended long-term benefits. So, give it some time, and much like the rest of the changes we’ve observed at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails (FPS), this too will lead to a more environmentally resilient ecosystem. 

Since its opening in 2018, we’ve seen remarkable changes at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails as this newest network of trails has grown and evolved. We know that connecting four (including the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp) parking lots may seem like a bit much, and maybe it is, but what those connections create in terms of accessibility is truly great. A substantial part of land management is to ensure accessibility. This involves widening the trails to allow others to wage the never ending battle of keeping them trimmed and mowed. This in turn helps create firebreaks to contain inevitable outbreaks of fire and ensures that first responders can reach those in need.  

One of the coolest things about the FPS trail system is the constant change that can be observed when we slow down long enough to pay attention to how the trails are always evolving. Return in ten years and you will likely find this trail system to have undergone the most changes of any within CREW. From the changes that wildfire brings, to the hydrologic restoration project, and the connection of the Purple Trail to CREW Bird Rookery Swamp, nothing ever stays the same at FPS!

FWC – Designated Trail maintenance at FPS

There are trails here for all levels of hikers and for every conceivable user group. Not unlike the waves of wading birds and alligators that populate FPS in all their wild ways; bikers, equestrians, long-distance hikers, wildflower seekers, photographers, birders, geo-cachers and hunters all flock to FPS. 

We’ve intentionally kept the hunting area separate from the trails for all user groups to enjoy their chosen pursuit of nature to its fullest. Far ahead of the hunt season, CREW FWC biologists hang “Designated Hiking” signs with a different color/shape to designate the hunting trails from the CREW hiking trails; they update hunt brochure policy and survey the huntable area by swamp buggy to ready the lands for this active user group. That includes a whole lot of trail trimming work as these areas of CREW rarely see a vehicle. 

CREW Trust volunteers aid in trail maintenance

SFWMD – Culvert installation at BRS

Future endeavors are on the horizon at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail, which has experienced natural degradation over the course of its public access history. The trail itself is historically significant, as a former logging road used to haul out old-growth cypress. The second-growth trees we now enjoy surround the old logging tram, with some of its original construction. 

It’s no wonder that some of the infrastructure has begun to crumble under the weight of bikers, hikers, bears, panthers and most significantly, land management trucks and heavy equipment. If you’ve hiked far enough, you’ve likely noticed the lack of trail upkeep on the far western banks of the trail. That’s simply because mowing contractors have not been able to traverse the broken down culverts desperately in need of replacement. That will all change in the coming months! 

The diligent South Florida Water Management District personnel assigned to look after CREW, have purchased several huge new culverts to install before the rainy season kicks into high gear. You can expect to see a temporary closure of the tram section of the trail in the next few weeks so that SFWMD personnel and contractors can complete the project as quickly as possible. The portion of the trail to remain open will include the parking area and boardwalk. 

In Sum

Keep an eye out for all these improvements by visiting CREW trail systems regularly. The CREW Land & Water Trust works to keep you informed about water and wildlife through guided walks, strolling science seminars, information kiosks and this series of blog posts. The hard work is handled by our partners, SFWMD and FWC, who keep our trails navigable and safe for humans and wildlife, and most importantly they protect and maintain our watershed. We owe them our thanks. 

The Changes that Wildfire Brings

By Allison Vincent – May 6, 2022 – CREW Land & Water Trust

Trail recon and clean up post fire with the CREW Trust volunteers

The walk leading up to the pine flatwoods at CREW Flint Pen Strand on the Billy G. Cobb Memorial Trail – commonly known as the Red Trail – at first glance appears unchanged after the March wildfire. That is, until you reach the fire breaks laid down by the Florida Forest Service (Forestry). 

Winding through the first half mile of this popular trail, with its verdant evergreen canopy, makes you almost forget a wildfire occurred or that even more changes are imminent as the seasons change. In just a few short months these trails undergo a dramatic transformation as the CREW watershed goes from dry to wet with the onset of the rainy season. That’s why many scientists say our region has two seasons – wet and dry – plus a fire season mixed into the later end of the dry season. 

Saw palmetto

Fire ecologists, like those with Forestry – or in-house at CREW with the South Florida Water Management District (the District) – anticipate the fire season considering many factors including seasonal water levels, wind measurements and relative humidity conditions. 

Ecosystems across the state reap diverse benefits from the touch of fire, which is why land managers utilize prescribed fire, previously known as “controlled fire”, year round. These burn prescriptions strategically revitalize fire dependent ecosystems and help to lower the intensity of future wildfires by focusing on heavy “fuel loads”, or areas with a layered understory of plant vegetation. 

As visitors, what we see after the impactful touch of fire is a stark change with ample opportunity for observation. Before the rain really gets started, take the gentle powder-sand path of the Red Trail, freckled with yellow tickseed flowers, and observe this easy-going path break up like a scar at each intersecting fire-break line. 

Send in your after pictures of the Red Trail at CREW Flint Pen Strand, or tag us @CREWtrust

As the fire-affected areas regrow and we work to restore the natural ecological flow, much of the burned area will remain wide open to better observe wildlife like low-flying birds, teal-striped lizards and foraging white-tailed deer. 

The blazing wings of a male red cardinal stands out even more starkly as he seeks out the cooked seeds and roasted tidbits among the contrast of the blackened pine woods on one side of the fire break with the thick undergrowth of vegetation on the other. 

Strange sounds, like the crackling reverberations from the pine trees, may surprise visitors not used to walking among the charred aftermath of a burn. In fact the wind blowing through the dry trees can evoke the experience of underwater fish gnawing on their favorite coral treat. However, here the sound comes from the pine tree trunks and limbs stretching from under their alligator-textured bark, growing back and expanding underneath the tightness of the char. 

The openness of the understory makes it easy to spot other wildlife, such as the outlines of white-tailed deer in the distance and white zephyr lilies peaking starkly upward against a black earth. As if waiting for the water that winds down the fire season and fills the CREW trails, these rain and fire loving lilies are delicious to sniff, but take nothing but photos as you tour this eclectic sensory experience. 

Under the spiky neon-green of the saw palmettos – the first plants to return as one of the only ground cover hold-outs – the equally bright colors of the six-lined racerunner streaks meticulously across the open understory. Their blue cheeks and yellow racing lines are a rare sight on these usually vegetative trails. 

Ultimately, it’s not a question of if a fire will affect this region, but when, which is why we encourage you to learn about the strategies used to enhance the resilience of the land, water and surrounding inhabited areas. With its rare sights and sounds, fire reveals so much life that would normally be hidden and allows us, along with the wildlife, the ability to truly explore this newly exposed landscape.

In the Footsteps of Fire

The Blue Shortcut Trail at CREW Flint Pen Strand

by Julie Motkowicz, CREW Trust Education Coordinator

Have you heard the news? 

CREW Flint Pen Strand recently experienced several days of wildfire. While CREW agencies conduct intentional prescribed burns all the time at Flint Pen, this fire was treated differently because of how it started. Read through these frequently asked Q&A to discover the facts about our recent wildfire and fire ecology of Southwest Florida.

What happened?

On Saturday, 3/26/22, local residents reported an active wildfire at CREW Flint Pen Strand in Bonita Springs. The fire began in northern Flint Pen outside of the hikable area, but spread to other areas within the preserve, including several of the CREW trails. The fire ultimately burned in three separate sections and was monitored over the following weeks. The Florida Forest Service and Bonita Springs Fire Department immediately responded with wildfire control measures. The South Florida Water Management (SFWMD) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) aided the situation. 

How big was the fire?

The fire burned approximately 190 acres, a majority of which occurred beyond the trails in northern areas of CREW Flint Pen Strand.

How was the fire stopped?

The Florida Forest Service used plows to create “fire breaks”. Fire breaks clear vegetation so that fire will no longer have “fuels” to burn and therefore extinguish itself. Natural fire breaks include bodies of water and even hiking trails.

How has the fire affected Flint Pen Strand?

The fire has visually changed the floral landscape of many areas of CREW Flint Pen Strand. For example, on parts of the Red Trail the understory of grasses and shrubs have been cleared, opening up lots of space for new growth. The fire breaks have created new open clearings on and around the trails that will take time to regrow. 

Are the trails still hike-able?

Yes, but some of the trails were affected by the fire breaks and are very bumpy and sandy with plant debris that may overlap the trails. Be sure to watch your step and closely follow the trail markers such as flagging, tree markers, and wooden posts. 

What is being done post-fire?

The plants and animals will quickly bounce back from the fire. CREW agencies are working to minimize the impacts of the fire breaks by flattening them and removing debris. CREW Trust staff are working to provide educational opportunities as the fire has created a unique hiking experience!

Is fire bad?

Fire is good! Our ecosystems in SWFL are dependent on fire. For example, most of CREW Flint Pen Strand is considered pine flatwoods. A pine flatwood is a type of ecosystem that needs a fire every 3-5 years to maintain its plants and animals. Fire returns nutrients to the soil, maintains understory plants for animals like birds and gopher tortoises, opens up new space for plants to grow, and overall is the “checks and balances” for many ecosystems. Frequent small fires prevent large, destructive fires, which is why our Land Managers practice “prescribed fire”. Unfortunately, wildfires can help the spread of invasive species of plants. Land managers and CREW Trust volunteers will closely monitor invasive species encroachment to prevent their spread.

What do animals do during fire?

Most larger animals like deer, bear, and panthers will simply move away from fire, while birds can easily fly away. Smaller animals like snakes, rabbits, and mice will seek shelter underground, usually in gopher tortoise burrows.

Are all the plants dead?

Some native plants may have died, but most of them will come back better than ever! Think of fire as a big haircut, promoting new, healthy growth. Just give them a few short months and you’ll see a lot of verdant changes. This is a great time to go hiking and observe how fire impacts our landscape!

What is the difference between a wildfire and a prescribed burn?

A prescribed burn is a fire that is intentionally set in specific conditions by fire professionals. At CREW, prescribed fires are conducted by SFWMD and FWC. A wildfire is a fire that either begins naturally (by a lightning bolt) or by accidental or intentional arson. An unplanned fire may affect nearby buildings, become large and destructive to plants/animals, and pose a threat to humans.

What can I do to help?

Always report illegal activity such as arson, UTV/ATV use, drones, unpermitted vehicles, unpermitted camping, etc. to any of the following: 911, the local non emergency number (239-477-1000 Lee, 239-252-9300 Collier), or the FWC hotline (888-404-3922). The CREW Trust staff and SFWMD staff do not respond to reports of illegal activities, so please direct your reports to the appropriate agency previously listed.
Support the CREW Trust’s mission by spreading the word about us or donating to us (www.crewtrust.org/donate). Environmental education is the best defense against preventable environmental destruction so please support our efforts to inform and engage with the community.

Will there be educational opportunities regarding fire?

Yes! Please join us for an interpretive hike along the affected trails at Flint Pen Strand for a unique experience post-fire. Observe the response of plants and animals displaying their resiliency to and dependence on fire. 


May 4th, 2022 at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trail: In the Footsteps of Fire – Hike in the footsteps of fire to see a miraculous rebound of the Flint Pen Strand landscapes as flora and fauna return to the crispy trails. Register here – https://footstepsoffire.eventbrite.com

Swallow-tailed kites (STKI) are Soaring into the CREW Lands

By Nan Mattingly and Allison Vincent

STKI feeding on the wing. Photo by Bill Zaino, CREW Trust Volunteer

If you’ve hung around any tall pine trees lately, there’s a chance – even if you didn’t notice – that you’ve been within view of one of southwest Florida’s most social flying raptors, the swallow-tailed kite (STKI). Returning from South America in mid-February every year like a romantic poem written especially for a birder just in time for Valentine’s Day, they almost immediately start circling the tall tree tops in search of their favorite nesting spot. We have a lot of unanswered questions regarding these world travelers, but there is plenty that we do know! This article will be a refresher course covering some of the top questions we hear from you about our black and white aerial artists at the CREW Trails. 

STKIs Journey to Nest

When we begin to spot STKIs in Florida in mid-February, they must be tired from their long journey because they’ve just flown in from South America, a journey of up to 6,000 miles. Some of them make it as far as seven of the southernmost states in the U.S. but Florida is their preferred destination and we see them in the greatest numbers here. We’re fortunate at CREW because they have a few favorite nesting areas within the CREW Project and between February and August we have the privilege of seeing them circle and soar over the treetops.

Left: Treetop nest toward the end of last nesting season. Right: STKI finds an old nest to make new this March, 2022. Photos by Dick Brewer, CREW Trust Volunteer

On arrival they begin looking for suitable nesting sites. There are two essentials for nesting, which they do in loose communities. They need tall trees (preferably pines, occasionally cypress and other tall trees) in open woodland where they can hunt abundant prey by sight, and they prefer to be near a source of water – a swamp, river, marsh or a slough – because they also capture and consume creatures living next to or in the water. Most STKIs return to the same nesting sites every year, often fixing up an old nest. In the early part of their stay in Florida, you’ll see them circling high overhead inspecting the territory.

Relationships of Swallow-tailed Kites

STKIs are believed to be monogamous. They may continue a relationship from the previous year, or they may find a mate during migration. Once the colony has chosen a good nesting site, they establish small territories around and above the nests and they guard their territories (or neighborhoods) by flying in small circles above the nest tree. Intruders are repelled with dive bombs and scolding cries sometimes described as loud, squeaky whistles.  

Both males and females bring nest materials to the site. They can build the nest quickly, in only one day, or more slowly, up to two weeks. They begin by making a platform of small, loosely woven sticks and then line it with soft materials such as lichen or Spanish moss, creating either a flat surface or a shallow cup. Most STKI nests are situated at least 60 feet above the ground.    

Each pair of STKIs produces a clutch of one to three eggs which incubate for 27 to 33 days. After the eggs hatch, the parents feed them frequently. The male STKI catches and carries prey in his talons to the nest, where he passes it to the female. She then tears it up and feeds it to the young. 

Photos by CREW Trust Volunteer Dick Brewer illustrating STKI development stages (starts at top left).

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – Feeding on the Wing

To catch that prey, the male hunts during the day “on the wing”, while in flight, picking prey off trees, shrubs and vegetation along rivers or other water bodies. And what are they looking for? STKIs like large insects such as dragonflies, wasps, cicadas, beetles and grasshoppers which they eat while flying. During the breeding season, adults also hunt small vertebrates, including tree frogs, lizards, nesting birds, and snakes. Occasionally STKIs devour bats, fish or fruit.  

We’re fortunate in southwest Florida to welcome these magnificent birds. You can identify them, at the right time of year (between February and August), first by noticing their long, forked tails and then by observing their graceful flight. They swoop and glide high overhead, catching insects in the air or descending to the treetops to find small creatures to eat. Unlike some other birds, they rarely flap their wings, and you should count yourself lucky if you see them on the ground. An individual STKI has a shrill “pee, pee, pee” call, but when they gather in flocks you’ll hear sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles. It’s a magical experience to find yourself looking up at a circling flock and hearing those whistles.  

You may have noticed that the CREW logo features the swallow-tailed kite. We don’t like to choose favorites, but it’s hard to resist these charismatic birds which are recognized by many as the most beautiful bird of prey. Just ask Brenda Brooks, CREW Trust Executive Director until 3/31/22, when she will make her own version of a migration north.

The Panther Capture Season at CREW Continues

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust Volunteer

FWC is learning more about Florida panthers through their FLM focused research

As we explained in our latest blog post, a primary objective of capturing and radio collaring Florida panthers and bobcats is to identify a mysterious disease affecting our felids, feline leukomyelopathy disorder (FLM). 

When a cat is captured, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists look to obtain tissue samples to study in an effort to advance our knowledge of FLM. Combined with trail cameras illuminating documentation on panthers and bobcats, tissue samples may help to unlock the key to this devastating disease.

The most notable symptom of FLM is rear leg weakness or even paralysis. Trail cameras have captured some heartbreaking examples of cats and kittens showing difficulty walking. Severe cases of FLM can result in death. Check out the FWC website (myfwc.com) to see videos of a panther and a bobcat demonstrating that rear-leg weakness. 

In Collier County, FLM was first discovered around the National Audubon lands known as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in 2018. Since then, cases of FLM have been documented in several south Florida counties. Testing has focused on toxins such as rodenticide, infectious disease and nutritional deficiencies but the mystery hasn’t yet been solved.

Why is this investigation of the causes of FLM urgent? The Florida panther underwent a severe decline in population during the 20th century. No reliable numbers exist but it is believed that the panther population was fairly robust at the end of the 19th century, yet by the 1970s the population had almost disappeared, mainly through hunting. In 1973 the Florida panther was declared an endangered species and since then the numbers have grown slowly, reaching the current estimate of approximately 120 to 230.   

FLM is only one of the contemporary threats to the panther population. Since most of the remaining panthers live south of the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a distinct geographic limit to the gene pool. With about 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, construction is destroying the panther’s essential warm climate habitats – wetlands, swamps, upland forest, and stands of saw palmetto. In addition, A male panther needs about 200 square miles to establish his own territory. The end result for panthers is increased car fatalities and intraspecies aggression due to a lack of territory. Without wildlife corridors like the CREW lands to connect large swaths of habitat, the panther is finding it more challenging to mate and breed.    

Bobcats, too, are susceptible to FLM and can provide valuable data to aid both species, but their population numbers are not as dire as those of the panther for several reasons. For one thing, bobcats are not as fussy about habitat – they can adjust to an urban or suburban environment. In a wild habitat, a bobcat needs a range of five to six miles, but in an urban setting they can be satisfied with only one or two miles. Bobcats are opportunistic carnivores and survive on a wider variety of prey than the panther. They prefer rabbits and rodents but they will also eat small reptiles, birds, feral cats, carrion and eggs. While the Florida panther lives only in the southwest corner of Florida, the bobcat is present in most of the U.S. and in Florida it’s found in all counties except in the Keys.   

When we protect our native Florida felids like the panther we in turn preserve their habitat, which benefits many other species – including our own – under the umbrella of their reach. Additionally, the research that the FWC panther team performs paints a broader picture of the Florida panther’s future, closely intertwined in the preservation of our limited natural resources. Panthers require our protection, so that future generations may enjoy the same diverse ecosystems, watersheds, and native environment that has attracted generations of Floridians to live and grow alongside these wild felids. FWC research is key to the survival of Florida’s state animal, the endangered Florida panther, but always remember that your input is incredibly valuable too! Please report panther sightings (and bobcats with FLM symptoms) with a video if you have the where-with-all to do so! 

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Panther Capture Season at CREW

by Allison Vincent

photo by Thomas Reinert of FWC

Staged and ready after months of planning stands a congregated group of biologists waiting for a call. They shiver outside the CREW office field station, enjoying the unusually cool temperatures and wide open view from the pole-barn near a utilitarian series of land management buildings used to manage the CREW lands. They’re waiting for word from the houndsman, still out searching for signs of Florida’s big cat, the Florida panther, and our smaller wild felid, the bobcat. 

Bobcat (left) and Florida panther (right)

When the call comes in that a bobcat has been tracked and treed, they load up the warmed-up swamp buggies and rendezvous with the houndsman in a remote area of the CREW lands. This time, they’ve tracked another male bobcat, not a target for collaring this season, given the biologists’ interest in females who might produce a litter of kittens that could provide developmental information about the feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) affliction. If they track a panther, they plan to collar it regardless of the sex.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have collected varied tissue samples from all FLM positive animals to analyze with a wide array of tests in order to attempt to decipher the root cause of the disorder. 

https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/panther/

The dogs respond to the houndsman’s signal and regroup, alert for the next search. The houndsman Cougar McBride, contracted by the FWC, is a second generation tracker and has worked throughout the Americas as far south as Paraguay, South America capturing jaguars. Here in Florida, the aptly named houndsman works collaboratively with biologists to safely track our endangered Florida subspecies of Puma concolor to supplement biological research and improve the chances of restoring the historic population of this important endangered species.

A major component of the panther program is radio collar data which tracks the range of these native predators. Using game cameras as a preliminary step, the panther team has a general idea of capture zones. This season they chose the CREW lands because of frequent game camera footage of panthers, including one that happens to have no ears – an indication of his age and survival skills. Capture zones where panther kittens were observed on the game cameras were avoided to prevent any conflict between the hounds and kittens. Safety of these wild felids is of the utmost importance and biologists will often walk away from a capture if the conditions are not right. 

It’s still early in this year’s capture season and it’s an ongoing saga that we’ll report back on in future blogs. The research and understanding these seasons bring to our collective understanding of this elusive animal cannot be overstated. Their status as an endangered species serves as an umbrella to protect other wildlife and wildlife corridors throughout their range. In the years to come, the story that emerges from our understanding of their expanding range and recovering numbers will affect all Floridians.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Panther: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/florida_panther/wah/panther.html

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