As development eats away at Florida's untamed lands, wild animals have found an ally in the Seminole Tribe.
The tribe's 36,000-acre cattle operation on the Brighton Reservation, north of Lake Okeechobee, is an important pathway for migrating wildlife including panthers, bobcats, bears, deer, wild hogs and turkeys. So is the even larger Big Cypress reservation, which covers 52,000 acres in southwest Florida but has fewer cattle.
The Seminoles have increased efforts in recent years to preserve this habitat, by ensuring cleaner water and by rooting out invasive species, helping wildlife to move freely between public preserves that abut the reservation.
Without the Seminoles' safe haven in between, the animals would be trapped.
"Florida's working farms and ranches are a critical component of Florida's Wildlife Corridor, and their connections with natural lands and waters help protect our wildlife and watersheds," state Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam said in an email.
The tribe, headquartered in Hollywood, operates the nation's fifth-largest cattle operation with 45,000 acres in Florida and Georgia. Say Seminoles, and most people think of casinos. But the tribe in 2013 bought a Georgia purebred Brangus cattle spread as part of an atttempt to diversify its business interests.
Gambling still generates 90 percent of the tribe's revenue, but the Seminoles are expanding their cattle operations as well as stakes in citrus, construction and beverage production.
About a third of the cattle are owned and managed by 67 tribal members and their families, who participate in a co-op program. The rest of the herd is managed by the tribe on behalf of its 4,000 members.
As ranchers, the Seminoles "are incredibly important stewards of the land," conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt said by cellphone this week as she hiked acrossSeminole land.
She joined photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and biologist Joe Guthrie in hiking a 1,000-mile wildlife corridor stretching from Everglades National Park to the Okefenokee Swamp at the Georgia border.
The Seminoles' Brighton Reservation is part of the corridor. Such public-private partnerships are crucial to Florida's wildlife being able to roam for hundreds of miles, said Alex Sink, a former Florida chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate who's on the board of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
The state can't buy all of the land needed to ensure that wildlife has enough habitat to survive — even with the passage of last fall's Florida Amendment 1, which earmarks $1 billion a year to conservation efforts for the next 20 years, Sink said.
The Seminoles see wildlife — and their cattle — as part of their heritage, said Alex Johns, the tribe's natural resource director. "It's part of who we are."
"The tribe has always made it a part of their way of life to take care of the land," Seminole Tribe President Tony Sanchez said in an interview. "Being in the woods was always part of how we grew up. We had to pay respect to our surroundings."
So far, the Seminoles' land restoration efforts appear to be helping both cattle and wildlife, Johns said.
The Seminoles, for example, are trying to root out invasive species that would take over natural prairie grasses, Johns said. The tribe conducts controlled burns of prairies to ensure vegetation stays healthy in pastures. Both efforts help produce fresh cattle forage that wild animals also eat and use for nests.
The tribe also ensures that water quality on its land meets state standards, though, as a sovereign nation, it is required only to meet federal law, Johns said.
Recent water improvement efforts appear to have encouraged some wildlife to return, Johns said. Wood storks and brown pelicans have been stopping at the reservation's water spots. "We didn't use to see that," he said.
He pointed out an alligator, brown pelican, wood stork and osprey during a recent drive on the tribe's cattle spread on the Brighton Reservation.
The Seminoles are good neighbors — and good land stewards, said Ron Bergeron, a southwest Broward developer, road builder and trash hauler who also is a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner.
Bergeron's 8,000 acres border the tribe's Big Cypress reservation and also lie in the wildlife corridor.
His ranch, called Green Glades West, "protects some of the best wildlife habitat in the state where both bears and panthers thrive," according to the book "Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition."
Bergeron's ranch "is one of the wildest and most natural properties I have experienced in Florida," wildlife corridor photographer Ward said in an interview.
Bergeron — who goes by the nickname "Alligator Ron" — said his land has been untouched for hundreds of years and will remain so. Its prairies are good for cattle grazing while allowing wildlife to co-exist, he said.
Hundreds of deer, bears, wild hogs, alligators, turkeys, bobcats, panthers, eagles and hawks call the ranch home, Bergeron said.
Every year he compiles a book of wild birds and animals photographed on his ranch, from a sleeping panther to a bear strolling into a prairie to join a trotting wild hog.
"It's totally natural — just like God made it," Bergeron said.