POLK CITY, Florida. – M34, a typical black bear who became an inspiration, was stuck.
He had hopscotched north from Sebring between shrinking patches of trees until he arrived at Celebration.
If Florida was an entire world, the M34 had reached its equator: Interstate 4, the mythical highway that transports suntanned tourists between the beaches of the Gulf and Disney World. I-4 is the concrete ribbon that connects commuters from Tampa to Orlando. It is a battleground for presidential candidates.
For many, the highway is a perpetual horror story, especially for a 3-year-old black bear.
Wearing a collar that tracked his movements, M34 walked in the shadows of I-4 west toward Lakeland. He drifted close to the curb, only to back out.
He covered many miles in June 2010, crossing part of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area east of Polk City, where tall pines barely hide the roar of SUVs and 18-wheelers.
The M34 eventually turned around, heading back toward Lake Okeechobee, nearly 100 miles south of Celebration.
More than a decade later, the highway remains a deadly barrier to wildlife. But where the M34 once ran, road construction crews are now working on hot, dusty days to raise I-4, providing the first major passage for animals under the freeway between Tampa and Orlando.
The work is part of a movement among conservationists – partly inspired by M34 – to preserve a corridor of continuous green space across the Florida peninsula.
“For 50 years we had these plant and animal communities that were isolated because of I-4. It’s the rare animal that made it through this,” said Jason Lauritsen, director of conservation for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. Last year, the foundation received state recognition for its efforts — and conservation funding — with the passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.
The I-4 crossing is part of a $71 million redesign of the interchange where the freeway meets State Route 557, said Brent Setchell, district drainage design engineer for the Department of Transportation in Florida. The agency did not break down the cost of the wildlife crossing alone, but Setchell estimated it at around $8 million, mostly for fill dirt.
In May, Setchell gave a tour of the site to representatives from the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation and Brenda Mallory, president of the Council on Environmental Quality, a federal group that advises President Joe Biden on conservation. A reporter from the Tampa Bay Times accompanied them.
Moaning bulldozers dug up the dirt beside I-4 on a wet afternoon as the tour group arrived in two trailers. Setchell showed posters of concept drawings and laid out a schedule, which calls for construction to be completed by next spring.
Visitors donned helmets and entered the shade under a bridge that will replace the existing six lanes of I-4.
The wildlife crossing is an underpass 61 feet wide at its opening and 8 feet high, Setchell said. The fence around the surrounding highway will herd animals towards the passage.
The state has installed wildlife crossings in other areas, he said, including southwest Florida, where they’re supposed to help endangered Florida panthers. The panthers – estimated at a maximum of 230 adults – are regularly hit by cars. Twenty-seven people were found dead in Florida last year, according to state data, including 21 killed by a vehicle.
This year, drivers killed 15 panthers, including one on the Polk Parkway south of I-4 a few weeks before the tour.
Rapid development continues to grip much of the state, but central Florida stands out. Orlando and Tampa hug the heart of the country on either side, with populations spilling into subdivisions of I-4.
The pressure puts conservationists on the clock. Every year, less and less land is available to save their corridor.
“We won’t be lucky enough to keep a property once it has roofs over it,” Lauritsen said.
Just east of the crossing, he said, green spaces along US 27 that were viable for conservation a few years ago are no longer viable.
Daniel Smith, a research associate with the University of Central Florida’s Department of Biology, said the underpass under I-4 is one of the few remaining places in the middle of the state connecting stretches of conserved land.
Roads, he said, fracture natural landscapes, dividing animal populations and shrinking their gene pools. Wildlife passages allow groups of animals to mix, benefiting species diversity.
Take black bears: Smith said they continually roamed Florida before development split them into separate subpopulations.
An estimated 4,050 bears lived in Florida in 2015, according to the most recent numbers available from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Like M34, some make long forays to find territory or food, crossing roads along the way.
According to state reports, at least 345 bears were killed in Florida last year, including 287 on the roads.
Bears and panthers likely won’t be regular visitors to the I-4 crossing, Smith said. Deer and bobcats, he said, are more common in the area. Small animals like armadillos could also use it.
The wildlife passage will not work on its own. For this to succeed, Smith said, officials need to preserve more land near I-4, so animals can reach the crossing.
“It’s doable,” he said. But as growth dominates Central Florida, “it’s challenged — it’s very challenged.”
Lauritsen said he hopes the I-4 crossing will catalyze more conservation support among elected officials in Polk and neighboring counties such as Orange, Osceola and Lake. The Wildlife Corridor Foundation has identified nearly 18 million acres of land that could form a continuous corridor. Of this number, 9.6 million acres have already been conserved.
Outside of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, most of the land around the pass is an “opportunity zone,” meaning it is not yet protected. State or local governments could buy properties directly or obtain conservation easements, leaving the land available to farmers or ranchers, but off-limits to development.
This strip of Florida has a “wonderful mix” of swampy, forested wetlands and pine forests, said Joe Guthrie, a carnivore ecologist at the Archbold Biological Station. North of I-4, the Green Swamp Wilderness Nature Preserve does not currently support a bear population, but scientists believe it may.
Wildlife Corridor Foundation leaders have been on several sweaty treks across the state, hiking, biking and paddling to raise awareness and show how continued passage is possible. Guthrie joined several times.
He also has another connection to the I-4 crossing, as one of the University of Kentucky researchers who first tracked M34. Guthrie called it “deeply satisfying” to see how the discussion around conservation in Florida has developed – stirred, at least in part, by M34’s trip.
All those years ago, he said, he could never have predicted that the young bear might play a role, however small, in the redesign of the freeway that once seemed to be blocking his progress.
And for the M34? After several months, the tracking collar fell off – as programmed – and the bear disappeared into the woods.
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