Development Surges in Southwest Florida Threaten Wildlife

Cleared lots and construction sites are common in Southwest Florida.

According to US Census data, Lee County is the second fastest growing county in the state. The increase in population leads to the need for further development, which raises the question of how to preserve the wildlife that makes this area so unique.

“The development and the roads that accompany the development just wipe out the animals if they were in that area and force them to move elsewhere,” said Meredith Budd, director of regional policy for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Budd said the entire process, from land clearing to construction, when there are hardened structures where habitat once existed, causes a change in the way wildlife uses the area.

He added that while there are no people living in an area, there is a potential for wildlife to use some of the edges and areas around the build. But the clearing of the land will certainly affect whether animals and birds choose that area.

“Once construction takes place and there are roofs and there are people and businesses, it is no longer viable in any way, shape or form,” Budd said.

Some believe that the population increase and the impact of development on wildlife may eventually deter people from moving to Southwest Florida.

“At the end of the day, the less wildlife we ​​have will be more detrimental to society and residents,” said new resident Nicole Phillips. “Because then the diversity of the ecosystem in which we live decreases.”

Phillips moved to Southwest Florida from Tennessee a year ago. He said that as someone who has moved out of state, the wildlife and nature make this region attractive.

Long-term resident John Troutman agrees. Troutman has lived in Southwest Florida for the past 25 years and spends his free time in nature and appreciating wildlife.

“Look at the advertising they do for Florida,” Troutman said. “You have arrived in paradise. It is to go down and see the dolphins. It is to go down and see the alligators. It’s gone down and you might see a wild Florida panther. This is our heritage here in Florida and we have always been blessed with lots of wildlife.”

Animals and birds were here long before large-scale development. Now, the increase in the human population eliminates habitat and threatens wildlife in other ways.

“You can’t talk about development without talking about roads and habitat fragments,” said Budd, of the wildlife federation. “Vehicle crashes are actually one of the leading causes of wildlife mortality worldwide.”

Budd said we need to make sure that we’re not only connecting preserves to other preserves, but we also need to have wildlife crossings and underpasses for animals to safely cross roads.

With increased development, more wildlife will continue to be forced from their habitats or eventually forced into interactions with people.

“We’re going into areas that have historically been wilderness and when that happens, there starts to be human-animal conflict,” Troutman said.

He said that education about the coexistence of wildlife is important when moving to and living in a region that has such diverse flora and fauna.

Florida’s wildlife and human populations are found more than ever before, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Especially with sprawling residential development encroaching on wildlife habitat in this region, education is an important tool to help reduce human-wildlife conflict, according to the Florida Wildlife Federation. Their website describes a project called ‘Share the Landscape’, a wildlife coexistence initiative to educate Floridians about the importance of protecting wildlife and their habitat.

“If we’re going to live here, we have to learn to share our space and that means respecting wildlife and being smart about how we do our business,” Budd said.

Budd said that people here should remember wildlife when they go about their daily tasks. That would mean walking dogs on leashes and making sure dogs don’t interact with wildlife. He also said that people should secure trash cans and clean and put away grills.

“The first part is to plan accordingly and make sure that connections and buffer zones are established to have a meaningful buffer zone between human residences and development and wildlife habitat,” Budd said. “But then, when we’re living on the edge of the wild, be careful; understand your surroundings, understand what wildlife may be around, and take the necessary precautions to avoid conflicts.”

Development will always be a factor when it comes to growing cities like those in Lee County and other parts of this region. But there are ways to help preserve wildlife even as development occurs.

“As with so many development-related issues, it’s about location, location, location,” said Nicole Johnson, director of environmental policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

The Nature Conservancy has advocated for direct development in the least environmentally sensitive areas and away from critical natural resources.

Johnson said the incompatibility arises when a development project is inappropriately located in key habitat areas, when it fragments wildlife movement corridors, when it leaps beyond the urban area onto rural and agricultural land, and when there is a need for new and expanded pathways to serve this new growth. habitat connectivity.

Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation said when looking at undeveloped landscapes, you need to understand that there are many factors involved in land use and ownership.

“When you talk about what land to protect, it may not necessarily be land owned by the government or the people or rather us, so we need to understand the range of stakeholders involved in protecting our landscapes,” Budd said. . “Work together with those stakeholders to ensure that when development happens, it happens in a coordinated way.”

There are several methods to balance population growth and preserve wildlife, according to April Olson, senior environmental planning specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

“One way is to have a development plan that groups houses into appropriate areas for development, while preserving those areas on the site that are important to wildlife,” Olson said. “Other ways to protect wildlife are by moving development away from wildlife travel corridors, maintaining landscape buffers that separate homes from important habitat areas, and providing wildlife crossings so animals can travel. safely under roads.

Olson added that coordination between wildlife advocates and developers is necessary to ensure wildlife preservation.

“Another simple way to protect wildlife is to ensure that developers are held accountable to the goals, policies and objectives within the local growth management plan and land development code,” Olson said. “Many local governments, including Lee and Collier counties, have policies to protect natural resources and wildlife, but projects are sometimes approved that do not meet the goals and objectives of the plan.”

The loss of wildlife and habitat seems to be an afterthought to some when new development is announced.

New resident Nicole Phillips said she rarely thinks about the wildlife that has been forced to relocate when she sees development or construction sites. However, she says that not considering the impact development has on wildlife poses a problem.

“Somehow it comes out of a bit of selfishness where it’s like ‘Oh, but we can have this new apartment building or this new restaurant that we didn’t have before’ and we’re just concerned with ourselves. and not about wildlife that was already there before we were here,” Phillips said.

Living in Southwest Florida, the ability to peacefully coexist with wildlife and nature allows residents to continue enjoying the quality of life they now have.

“The rich abundance of wildlife that we enjoy in Southwest Florida is an enormous quality of life benefit,” Johnson said. “We have an inherent responsibility to coexist with the wildlife that was here before us. We need to be good neighbors.”

Wildlife preservation not only benefits those who live here year-round, but also makes the area attractive to tourists.

“Wildlife can only be pushed so far,” resident John Troutman said. “Eventually, they’ll just run out of space and so what are we going to have? We are basically ruining paradise.”

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