Archbold joins Ranch to Ridge Expedition traversing Highlands and Polk Counties

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The route of the 2019 Ranch to Ridge Expedition from Highlands Hammock Park to the Tiger Creek Preserve. Photo Credit: Florida Wildlife Corridor

Author: Hilary Swain

On Saturday, October 19, three intrepid Florida Wildlife Corridor explorers, Carlton Ward Jr., Mallory Dimmitt, and Joe Guthrie completed the final day of their 7-day 2019 expedition south to north through Highlands, Hardee, and Polk County. Joe Guthrie described their route: “We started in Highlands Hammock State Park, going west of the Ridge, turning north to traverse private ranches and public lands on foot and horseback, then trekked east across US 27 near the Frostproof junction into a conservation bank and state and federal lands, and ended up on paddleboards at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve on the Ridge near Lake Wales.”

“The goal of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is to draw attention to the need for wildlife corridors across Florida,” described expeditioner Mallory Dimmit. This was our fifth expedition. In previous years, we’ve trekked 1,000 miles across Florida—twice—to demonstrate the need and opportunity to connect wild places in Florida that will allow for movements of large animals like bears and panthers. In 2018, our short expedition highlighted the need to protect the last tenuous green connection from south to north through the urbanizing areas west of Orlando. This year we focused on the Lake Wales Ridge to emphasize that conserving wildlife corridors doesn’t just protect Florida’s large wide-ranging animals but also conserves the many ‘little but precious’ plants and animals of Florida”.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor has deep science roots along the ridges and ranches spanning the Lake Wales Ridge. It was at Archbold Biological Station where Carlton Ward first envisaged launching cross-Florida expeditions, grounded in scientific knowledge that could highlight the opportunities and solutions to protect the remaining conservation corridors across the state. He saw expeditions as a way to engage the public throughout the state and nation. Five expeditions, three film documentaries, more than 70,000 social media followers, and countless connections later, the vision of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is taking root in the minds of the public and expanding to become a reality.

Expeditioner Joe Guthrie, who previously conducted his Masters’ thesis fieldwork on black bears at Archbold Biological Station noted, “This expedition was an opportunity to draw again from Archbold science. We met with two Archbold scientists, Stephanie Koontz and Reed Bowman en-route, to learn about their work and to discover how wildlife corridors play a role in the conservation of species associated with the sandy Florida scrub habitats of the Ridge.”

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Stephanie Koontz (Archbold, far right) with expeditioners (l.to r.) Joe Guthrie, Carlton Ward and Mallory Dimmitt examine the small, endangered plant, the Avon Park Harebells.                          Photo by Bill Parken

When Stephanie Koontz, a research assistant in Archbold’s Plant Ecology Program, joined the expedition, she required them to slow down and look around their feet, drawing their attention to the diminutive plant, the Avon Park Harebells. She explained, “It’s a globally imperiled species found in only three locations around Avon Park and nowhere else in the world. While the concept of the corridor was originally established to facilitate the movement of large animals like the Florida Panther, I think of corridors as also providing preserves and connections for plants and smaller, less mobile animals. Obviously, harebell plants will never physically move as individuals across a corridor, but pollinating insects like bees move pollen from harebell to harebell, maintaining genetic diversity, and small mammals such as the Florida Mouse, also store plant seeds in the soil, dispersing plants like harebells to new areas. If wildlife corridors aren’t maintained, then the patches of Florida’s native habitats also lose connection with each other threatening many of our native species.”

Dr. Reed Bowman, Director of Archbold’s Avian Ecology Program, provided a unique opportunity for the expeditioners to join him and research assistant Becky Windsor in banding some Florida scrub jays along the expeditioner’s route. With a bird in hand, Dr. Bowman explained, “banding is a relatively easy way to detect jay movements among different scrub patches. When coupled with regular censuses of scrub-jays across a network of potentially connected patches, banding enables us to identify individual birds when they move from one patch to another. In connected landscapes, young jays have more options to become breeders, including moving to a new and potentially better patch. The movement of birds among patches makes the entire population more stable; they provide mates for birds in small patches where there may be few choices and they also bring in new genes, which prevents inbreeding.”

The Executive Director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, Jason Lauritsen, summed up the expedition like this, “Even though it was short, it was nearly a year in the making. More than 50 partners, public and private land managers, aerial surveys, scouting excursions, conversations with landowners, drawing from scientists’ knowledge, mapping and remapping, and countless other logistics and negotiations go into planning our Expeditions. We are grateful to the scientists at Archbold who helped us plan a route via valuable conservation stops and for sharing their science during the expedition.”

Archbold’s Director Hilary Swain commented that she never fails to be motivated by the Florida Wildlife Corridor, “Their ‘end of expedition’ celebration held at Bok Tower Gardens brought home how ‘people connectivity’ is fundamental to wildlife connectivity. Conservation on the Ridge is built on a profound, long-term connectivity among scientists, landowners and land managers, and conservation supporters. Archbold scientists share a deep connection with other scientists working on the Ridge including those with The Nature Conservancy, the Geoplan Center at the University of Florida, state and federal agencies, and at Bok Tower Gardens. These expeditions act as a conservation catalyst for science. We hope this expedition encourages similar coalitions elsewhere, championing the public support needed to permanently connect, protect, and restore a statewide corridor network.”

The expeditioners concluded, “Public support is critical to build the green and blue infrastructure of protected lands and waters that will sustain wildlife, wildlife movements and Floridians into the future. The week ended for us with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, inspiring us for our most important ongoing journey—to accelerate the rate of conservation protection within Florida Wildlife Corridor by 10% by the end of next year.”

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