POLK COUNTY, Fla. — A wildlife underpass crossing along I-4 in Polk County is part of the state’s efforts to reconnect wildlife habitats divided by roadways.

What You Need To Know

  • Wildlife underpass crossing being constructed on Interstate 4 in Polk County

  • Tens of thousands of cars cross I-4 daily, making it hard for animals to cross

  • Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation

The Green Swamp region of Florida is more than a half-a-million acres, from wetlands and lush greenery to flat woods and towering pines. It’s an ecosystem teaming with wildlife. 

But cutting through the southern portion of it is I-4. Tens of thousands of cars drive through each day, making it almost impossible for animals to safely cross.

“I-4 comes right up through the center of the state, separating the southern part of the state from the northern part,” Jason Lauritsen is the Chief Conservation Officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation.

Construction on I-4 began back in 1958, at a time when Lauritsen said landscape ecology wasn’t practiced as it is today. Meaning the migratory patterns of animals weren’t necessarily considered when designing roadways.

Take for example the Florida black bear, which leave their habitats as juveniles, striking out on their own in search of new territory. One such bear, dubbed M34 by the researchers who collared him in 2009, traveled more than 500 miles before it arrived at I-4 in Polk County.

“It appears as though he would’ve continued north if he could. He spent 4 days bouncing around the edge of I-4 before finally giving up and heading back south,” said Lauritsen.

Other animals suffer a worse fate. FWC data shows thousands of bears killed on Florida roads since the late 1970s. Then there’s the endangered Florida panther. FWC reports at most, only about 230 in the wild today. Last year alone, 21 were killed in vehicle crashes.

“Over time, those species will just blink out,” Lauritsen said.  “And the things we were able to see and enjoy in our backyards and in our state parks won’t be there for our children and our grandchildren.”

But just down the highway is a plan in action. FDOT crews are working on the construction of a wildlife underpass where I-4 cuts through the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, part of the Green Swamp ecosystem.

“It’s 61 feet wide at the opening. It will have 8 feet of clearance on this side,” pointed out  Brent Setchell,  District Drainage Design Engineer. “And over on this side it will let aquatic species to go through.”

According to FDOT, there are 70 bridge style crossings on state roads throughout Florida.  This latest one is part of the interchange redesign project at I-4 and State Road 577.  It will be the third of its kind built since 2017, when the FDOT design manual was updated, making it a requirement to consider wildlife crossings with each new bridge design.

“All of the existing lanes will be moved,” Setchell said. “They’ll be set on top of the two new bridges. It’ll have the fencing on both sides to keep the wildlife within the corridor and of the roadway.”

Setchell said the cost of the entire project is 71 million dollars, with the underpass portion costing about 10 million of that.  It will be the first of three set for I-4 in Polk County. The traffic from the current lanes of I-4 are expected to be shifted onto the new wildlife crossing bridges by the end of the year. However, the entire project won’t be completed until summer of 2023.