Imagine standing on the side of Interstate 4 trying to find an opportunity to cross as semi trucks whir by - only you don’t know exactly what these loud, fast monstrosities are, because in this scenario you are a bear. Maybe there’s a fresh food or water source on the other side of the highway, or you may have been evicted from your home territory by a bigger, stronger bear. Anyway, you’ve left the safety of the trees and have now come to face the dizzying bustle of the roadway. Considering that vehicle collisions are responsible for 90% of known bear deaths, you’d have good reason to be intimidated by all this.
Joe Guthrie, Carlton Ward Jr. and Elam Stoltzfus of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, experience this scenario as they hurry across I-4 in between clusters of buses, cars and motorcycles. Guthrie, Ward and Stoltzfus are on a 1000 mile journey through Florida, advocating the protection of a corridor of natural lands. The team has to cross this Volusia County section of I-4 after coming from their campsite at Longleaf Pine Preserve. Without crossing this highway, it would not be possible to get to the next portion of their route on foot. Volusia County has a system of linked conservation lands, which bottleneck here at I-4, near the major connection between Daytona Beach and Orlando.
Also along for the I-4 crossing is University of Central Florida Biologist, Daniel Smith. Smith has been involved in plans for wildlife underpasses that are in the works for I-4 in Volusia County’s district of the Department of Transportation (DOT). He says underpasses will increase permeability of the highway for wildlife, including black bears and other smaller species like bobcats, foxes, reptiles and amphibians.
After the successful group-dash across Interstate 4, the team comes to the spot for one of the future wildlife underpasses. Smith says this site was chosen in part, because there are public conservation lands on both sides of the road here.
“The I-4 corridor has really been heavily developed, but this is one section where we still have protected habitat, and it’d be very beneficial to make this road more permeable,” says Smith. “And one thing about Interstate 4 - in this particular area where we are - there’s over 50,000 cars a day that travel this road. It makes it a major barrier for wildlife movement. The probability of road-kills is very high on this highway.”
Smith tells expedition members Ward and Guthrie that the DOT has a policy in place to avoid creating wildlife crossings adjacent to private lands, when there’s uncertainty about future development potential of those lands.
“In public ownership or conservation easements, or some sort of an agreement that shows that it’s going to be protected for at least 50 years, they’re willing to entertain the investment in building wildlife crossings,” Smith adds.
The next morning expedition members Ward and Stoltzfus fine-tune their plans for the next few days, including two days of roughly 12 mile hikes, followed by a day of paddling.
“This is going to be more of a narrow ribbon of water, probably a little less wide than the Caloosahatchee,” Ward estimates. “Let’s compare it real quick to the St. John’s (River)…”
They’re looking at maps on their I-phones. In order to keep the expedition on route and on time, they reassess daily. These I-phones are pretty crucial to the realization of a connected Florida. Co-leaders Ward and Guthrie will need to stay engaged with the public through social media, plus frequently make contact with land managers, policy makers and potential project sponsors, throughout the end of the expedition on Earth day 2012 and beyond.