POLK COUNTY, Fla. — On I-4, between Tampa and Orlando, construction is almost complete on one of Florida's newest wildlife crossings.
The project will connect the northern and southern parts of the Osprey Unit of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area for the first time in half a century.
"We don't know exactly what the animals are doing here now and how their population sizes are, but we know they're here," Brent Setchell, the District 1 Drainage Design Engineer with FDOT, said. "And, being able to, you know, cross, you know, those populations is going to be awesome for genetic diversity, you know, and enable that wildlife to open up new habitats and new corridors home."
Setchell gave ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska a tour of the new crossing. The design will allow animals, both on land and in the water, to safely cross I-4 by walking safely under the more than 106,000 vehicles that pass through this section daily.
"The number one killer of Florida panthers are vehicles, and I'm looking at I-4, and there's no way you can cross unless you're a super lucky panther or bear," Paluska said.
"You'd have to be very lucky; you'd have until maybe 2 a.m., and maybe the traffic dies down, and you might get lucky, but it's certainly not worth the risk," Setchell said.
To protect the fantastic creatures that call Florida home, FDOT officials said they're building wildlife crossings with each new road project or retrofit. This map shows the location of crossings across the state, with more planned in the future.
"How many more wildlife crossings do you think we could build to protect all of our species?" Paluska asked.
"Probably hundreds; with each new road project, we look at opportunities for wildlife crossings. It's now in the guide books that we need to look for those opportunities," Setchell said. "Certainly, there's plenty of existing roads where you know, we didn't have the information that we have now, and so some of them there's plenty of opportunities for us to make improvements on those existing structures kind of like we're doing here with I-4."
Wildlife cameras are now an essential tool used by FDOT, nonprofits and wildlife advocates to document the secret lives of animals we drive past every day but may never notice.
"This a testament for you that photos are making an impact when they see these animals in the wild and say I can't believe they are all here," William Freund, President, fStop Foundation, said.
Freund founded the nonprofit in 2015 to use video and pictures to make an impact on conservation efforts in Florida.
"The saying is a picture is worth 1,000 words. I like to add something to it, and I say 'a video will leave you breathless,' and the power of the videos of showing not only that the animal is actually there and using a specific crossing or an area, but a lot of times taking a peek into this life that they have, and in the fact that they have emotions," Freund said. "The power that has in places like Tallahassee or, you know, any spot where you can really touch people's hearts, and they can see the importance of this."
A recent video by the fStop Foundation of a dancing skunk went viral. They've also captured a mama panther, her kittens, a mama bear with her cubs, and the usual suspects, like alligators, deer, and raccoons.
The team's produced several award-winning documentaries.
The Need for Connectivity is a 26-minute film on PBS that features panther "FP224" and her amazing life. Wildlife in Our Backyard is a six-minute film about the foundation's Share the Landscape project.
There is nothing random about where the crossings are installed. A tagged bear inspired the new location for this new crossing.
"The 'M-34' bear wandered, you know, right down the power lines, where there couldn't find a way to get across I-4. And so this new passage will make that possible," Setchell said. "We've got plenty of documentation that how successful these wildlife crossings are. They're 80 to 90% effective. Especially when you have the wildlife fencing like we do on this project. Effectively moving wildlife from one side of the road to the other."
So far, no panthers have been captured on a camera installed near the new crossing. But, Setchell is hopeful that will change.
"The whole goal for the Florida panthers is to create three separate populations of more than 250 Panthers," Setchell said. "And, right now, we have one population that's less than that. And so, our goal is to try and promote that growth. And the only way we'll get that is to allow them to migrate northward. And so this crossing will help achieve that."
The crossing should be complete by the end of the year.