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Increases in development in SWFL cause some to question the preservation of wildlife

Construction site.jpg
Katiuska Carrillo
/
Construction site located on Ben Hill Griffin Parkway, across from Florida Gulf Coast University's campus. When land is cleared, wildlife is forced to relocate and pushed out of the natural habitat.

Cleared land and construction sites are commonplace in Southwest Florida.

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

“Development and the roads that come along with development simply extirpates animals if they were in that area and it forces them to move elsewhere,” said Meredith Budd, regional policy director of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

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

She added that while there's no people living in an area, there's potential for wildlife to use some of the edges and areas around the construction. But clearing land certainly is going to impact whether animals and birds choose that area.

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

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

“At the end of the day, it's going to be more detrimental to society and to residents the less wildlife that we have,” new resident Nicole Phillips said. “Because then it diminishes the diversity of the ecosystem that we live in.”

Phillips moved to Southwest Florida from Tennessee a year ago. She said as someone who moved from out of state that 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 that they do for Florida,” Troutman said. “It's come to paradise. It's come down and see the dolphins. It's come down and see the alligators. It's come down and maybe you'll see a wild Florida panther. This is our heritage here in Florida and we have always been blessed with a lot of wildlife.”

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

“You can't talk about development without talking about roads and fragment habitat,” Budd of the wildlife federation said. “Vehicle strikes are actually one of the leading causes of mortality for wildlife globally.”

Budd said we need to ensure that not only are we connecting areas of preservation to other preservation areas, but we need to have wildlife crossings and underpasses for animals to get across roads safely.

With an increase in development, more wildlife will continue to be pushed out of their habitats or eventually forced to have interactions with people.

“We're pushing into areas that have historically been wild areas and when that happens you start to get conflicts between humans and animals,” Troutman said.

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

Florida's wildlife and human populations encounter each other more than ever before, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Especially with expansive 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 on the importance of protecting wildlife and their habitat.

“If we're going to be living here, we have to learn to share our space and that means respecting wildlife and being smart about how we go about our business,” Budd said.

Budd said people here should remember wildlife when doing daily tasks. That would mean walking dogs on leashes, and ensuring dogs don't interact with wildlife. She also said people should secure trash cans and clean and put away grills.

“The first part is to plan accordingly and to make sure the connections and buffers are put in place to have a significant buffer between human residences and development and wildlife habitat,” Budd said. “But then when we are living at the edge of wildland, be mindful; understand your surroundings, understand what wildlife may be around and take the precautions necessary to avoid conflict.”

Development always will 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 when development occurs.

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

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

Johnson said that incompatibility arises when a development project is inappropriately located in key habitat areas, when it fragments wildlife movement corridors, when it leapfrogs beyond the urban area into rural and agricultural lands, and when new and expanded roads needed to serve this new growth sever habitat connectivity.

Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation said that when you're looking at undeveloped landscapes, there needs to be an understanding that there are many factors surrounding land use and land ownership.

“When you're talking about what land to protect, that might not necessarily be land owned by the government or people or rather us, so we have to understand the variety of stakeholders involved in protecting our landscapes,” Budd said. “Working together with those stakeholders to ensure that when development does happen, it's done in a way that's coordinated.”

There are several methods for balancing population growth while preserving wildlife, according to April Olson, the senior environmental planning specialist of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

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

Olson added that coordination among wildlife advocates and developers is necessary to ensure the preservation of wildlife.

“Another simple way to protect wildlife is by ensuring 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 County, have policies to protect natural resources and wildlife, but sometimes projects are approved that do not meet the goals and objectives of the plan.”

Wildlife and habitat loss seem to be an afterthought for some when new development is announced.

New resident Nicole Phillips said she rarely thinks about the wildlife that were forced to relocate when she sees development or construction sites. However she does say that not considering the impact development has on wildlife raises an issue.

“It kind of stems from a little bit of selfishness where it's like ‘Oh, but we get to have this new apartment building or we get to have this new restaurant that we didn't have before’ and we're just worried about ourselves and not about the wildlife that was already present before we were here,” Phillips said.

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

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

Not only does the preservation of wildlife benefit those who live here year-round, but it also makes the area attractive to tourists.

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

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