The King and Queen of the Everglades

The Florida Everglades remained unexplored for quite some time, and was even considered impenetrable by some of the original natives to the surrounding land. Because of the elusive and hidden nature of the Everglades, it should come as no surprise then that it provided sanctuary to some of America’s most notorious criminals during the early 1900′s. One such bandit, John Ashley, along with his girlfriend, Laura Upthegrove, were so active in southern Florida between 1915 and 1924 that collectively they became known as the “King and Queen of the Everglades.”

John Ashley, who also occasionally went by the nickname of “Swamp Bandit,” was a bank robber, bootlegger, occasional pirate, and overall American outlaw, who was raised in the backwoods of the Caloosahatchee River near what is today considered Fort Myers. His father was a railroad worker and otter trapper who made a living out of fishing and hunting, and John followed in his footsteps, becoming a skilled trapper and alligator hunter by a very young age.

John Ashley’s first reported crime was the suspected murder of fellow otter trapper Desoto Tiger in 1911, though due to the intervention of one of his brothers, authorities were unable to arrest him for the crime. Afterwards, John spent a few years on the run in nearby states with his brothers, eventually forming a gang with his brothers and other outlaws they had met in their travels. This gang of robbers and murderers were estimated to have collected more than $1 million from over forty banks in the southern United States during the time that they were active, and became known simply as the Ashley Gang.

Prior to an arrest in 1915 during an attempted break-out for one of his jailed brothers, John began a relationship with Laura Upthegrove. Laura immediately took an active role in the gang, marrying John and acting as both a look-out and getaway driver during robberies, and earning herself the nickname of “Queen of the Everglades.” During John’s incarceration, the Ashley Gang remained active in South Florida, even adding moonshining and rum running to their repertoire, and Laura took on a central role in the business during John’s absence, keeping her role even after his death.

Though a skilled criminal, eventually able to escape from prison after only a few short years, John’s thirst for revenge turned out to be his downfall. Through the course of his legal troubles, John developed a feud with a local authority, Sheriff Baker, a feud which lasted for thirteen years. After remaining safe in California for a couple of years, John returned to Florida in 1924 to make an attempt on the Sheriff’s life. Things took a turn for the worse when the Sheriff received an anonymous tip on John’s location, and an intense police shoot-out ensued. John and three of his gang partners were killed in the event.

During his time as an outlaw, John Ashley became somewhat of a hero among the poor Florida “crackers” in the area. While his name might not be as well known as other gangsters from his era, at one point in time he and his gang were believed to be responsible for every major crime that happened in the state of Florida, and one state official even referred to John and his gang as the greatest threat to Florida “since the Seminole wars.” One thing is for sure, the so-called “King of the Everglades” certainly made his mark on South Florida’s history, and will never be forgotten.

To see some of the Everglades mangrove forests once utilized by John and his gang for hiding, take the family on an Everglades swamp tour. Many of these areas can only be accessed and experienced by boat, and an airboat ride is the perfect way to get up close and personal while safely enjoying some of Florida’s history.

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What is Restoration Ecology?

Restoration ecology is a special field of science, having been first classified in the 1980′s, which has become an integral part of the conservation and restoration efforts in such places as the Florida Everglades. But what is restoration ecology?

The official definition of restoration ecology as defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration is the “intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability.” While this definition might seem somewhat vague or ambiguous, it’s much easier to understand when you consider specific examples of restoration ecology: erosion control, reforestation, removal of invasive species, reintroduction of native species, revegetation of damaged areas, and habitat restoration for endangered species. Essentially, restoration ecology is any action taken with the intention of restoring an ecological system to its original and most adequate form, providing the best possible environment for native species that is possible given the current circumstances.

The practice of restoration ecology has actually been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, practiced by laypeople who had no specialization or expertise in the field, but who simply loved the land around them and believed they were doing the right thing in trying to preserve it. The term “restoration ecology” was officially coined in the 1980′s by two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Aber and William Jordan, who also organized and held the first official meetings on the topic at the same University. Restoration ecology has greatly expanded as a field in the few decades since, becoming its own scientific discipline and inspiring one renowned biologist, E.O. Wells, to make a bold statement explaining that he feels the next century will “be the era of restoration in ecology.”

If Wells is right, then it means big things for many of the ecosystems around the world that are currently suffering, including the Florida Everglades. However, even amongst supporters of restoration ecology, there are generally two types. There are those people who have the belief that humans have a responsibility to all other living things, both plants and animals, and that we have an obligation to protect all species and their habitats independent of the effects that it has on us as a species. On the other hand, there are those who support restoration ecology but look at it from the viewpoint of what benefits are offered to us – such people look at healthy ecosystems instead as the food, fuel, water, and lumber they provide to humans. However one chooses to look at it, it’s clear that restoration ecology is a field that looks upon improving the environments that it studies, which could hardly be considered a bad thing in anyone’s book.

To truly understand why the field of restoration ecology is so important, it’s vital to visit places like South Florida and experience an Everglades tour firsthand. From an airboat tour, you’ll observe areas of the Everglades that not every average Florida tourist gets to see, and who knows – after a trip through the Florida Everglades, you may just be inspired to dive into the field of restoration ecology yourself.

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The Florida Panther is the Everglades’ Single Most Endangered Animal

While the Florida Everglades are home to thirty-six federally protected species, none is in more danger of extinction than the Florida panther. A species once prevalent throughout Southern Florida, the Florida panther was once hunted to near extinction, and, during a particularly low point in the 1970′s, there were estimated to be less than twenty individuals left in the wild. Recent conservation efforts over the last few decades have resulted in an increased population of between 100 and 160, but the Florida panther still has a long way to go before the species is considered out of the red zone.

Because the only natural predators of Florida panthers are American alligators and American crocodiles, the drastic decline in Florida panther populations can be blamed almost entirely on human encroachment. Southwest Florida is one of the fastest developing areas in all of the United States, and the addition of major roads and housing communities within prime panther habitats has been an issue of controversy in the area for some time. When you consider that one of the leading causes of death amongst Florida panthers is automobile collisions, it is obvious that this construction is having a major impact. What is less obvious is the fact that roadways also separate male and female panthers from each other and prevent breeding. Recent studies have shown that the great majority of panthers hit on the road are male and that females tend to be more reluctant about crossing roads in general, offering them protection from accidents but unfortunately also separating them from the males and inhibiting the future growth of their species.

In addition to roadside collisions, the other leading cause of death amongst Florida panthers is territorial disputes between panthers. While this aggression has always naturally existed between panthers, it becomes much more of a danger when panthers are limited to smaller areas, a natural result as more and more of their prime habitats are destroyed to make way for more humans. In addition to the territorial disputes that arise in such close quarters, Florida panthers are also heavily prone to inbreeding. In fact, of all puma species, the Florida panther has the lowest genetic diversity, and inbreeding leads to such complications in individuals as cardiac defects and weakened immune systems, further lowering the survival chances of those who manage to pass infancy.

Furthermore, in addition to the threats previously mentioned, because of their weakened immune systems Florida panthers are also more susceptible to certain diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus. Pollution in and around their environments has also exposed Florida panthers to harmful chemicals, chemicals which further inhibit their reproduction. In some cases, tests have even shown that male Florida panthers have the ability to become feminized after certain levels of chemical exposure. Unfortunately, what you end up with is a feminized male, who because he thinks of himself as female, is highly unlikely to then reproduce with the true females around him.

Despite the rareness of an encounter with a Florida panther, these beautiful and large cats can still be occasionally observed in South Florida, though more and more instances of sightings are occurring around homes or public parks, places where it is more than likely that a lost panther just happened to wander into a zone inhabited by humans. To take your chances of spotting a Florida panther for yourself in the wild, you can always try a trip on a local airboat tour, where much of the local Everglades wildlife can be viewed from a safe distance. Everglades tours are a great opportunity to not only observe an abundance of animals and plants unique to the area, but you will also step off the boat with a newfound appreciation for the native species that call this area home and a greater understanding of why exactly these animals need to be saved and protected.

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The term “mallard” has often been used to describe any duck that is found in the wild, but is actually an official term used to describe a specific species of duck, the Anas platyrhynchos. While mallards are a type of wild duck, this does not go to say that every duck that is found in the wild is a mallard. While not a native species to all, the mallard can now be found on every continent in the world except for Antartica, and is especially comfortable in the subtropical climate of South Florida. Most all domestic breeds of ducks in the world today are descendants of mallards, so it could be said almost every duck you encounter in the wild has at least a little bit of mallard blood in it.

Mallards are a medium-sized waterfowl species, averaging in lengths of around two feet and with wingspans of around three feet. Females are mostly mottled in various shades of brown and tan, leaving them virtually indistinguishable from other species of dabbling ducks. Male mallards, however, are quite a site to behold. Most notable for their glossy green heads, white collars, pale grey bellies, and black and white tipped tails, the males are arguably the “prettier” of the two genders. But while certain characteristics can be associated with both male and female mallards, the malleability of their genetic code allows for quite a range of variation in appearance between ducks of the mallard species.

What makes mallards unique from other waterfowl species, and from much of the Florida Everglades wildlife in general, is that while most species tend to suffer and decline in population from their interactions with humans, mallards have actually benefited. These ducks are highly adaptable to a variety of surroundings, including heavily populated areas and areas of urban development. In fact, in addition to being found throughout the Everglades, they are also quite common around ponds and lakes within housing communities and commercial centers.

But while it can be argued that mallards have benefited from their relationship with humans, it can also be said that humans have not benefited from their relationship with mallards, but most importantly, the species hurt the most by mallards are other types of ducks. Mallards are capable of breeding with nearly all other types of ducks, and are considered an invasive species or pest in many areas where they can be found, because of what is called “genetic pollution.” The idea behind this concept is that, because mallards hybridize with so many other species, it creates conservation concerns for specific species of duck that are already in danger. After enough hybridization, the original species will cease to exist, essentially causing the possible extinction of a variety of exotic and domestic duck species.

Though you likely have observed some form of mallard in the wild before, more than likely at the local park or perhaps even in your own backyard, mallards can still be appreciated while taking an airboat tour through the Florida Everglades. Florida swampland tours are not only a great opportunity to view the local winged wildlife, but you can also observe many of the local mammals, amphibians, and lizards too.

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