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Last week, the Florida Gulf Coast University’s (FGCU) Wings of Hope Panther Posse program conducted its last “Hiking Adventure” for the 2023-2024 school year. As a long-term sponsor of this program, the Federation was honored to hike with the students on this special day.

The Panther Posse program exposes 4th and 5th grader students to the Florida panther by exploring public conservation lands and experiencing panther habitat first-hand. Ms. Ricky Pires founded this education program at the University in 2000. Each year it educates over 5,000 elementary students annually and hundreds of college-age students as mentors and guides.

The “Hiking Adventures” occur on public trails in the CREW (Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed) watershed, a 60,000+ acre intact watershed in Southwest Florida, straddling Lee and Collier Counties. This critical watershed provides the following benefits for Southwest Florida:

    • recharges the groundwater for our drinking water supply
    • offers natural flood protection
    • purifies water
    • provides habitat for wildlife
    • offers a beautiful space for public recreation

The last hike was in Flint Pen Strand, a 14,000 acre preserve offering recreational opportunities for many and the ability to experience several ecosystems including pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, wet prairies, and cypress forests.  


When we got back to the parking lot folks from the CREW Land and Water Trust, FWC panther team, National Wildlife Refuge, FGCU professors, and Naples Zoo came out to show their appreciation for Ms. Ricky. After 24 years of directing the program, she is retiring and this was her last hike. Her dedication and hard work has led to thousands of students and families who have observed, valued, and connected with nature. This first hand experience leads to future generations that will protect and save the natural world.  

Before the students left, Ms. Ricky gave her final cheer to the students. She had them all yell “Panther Posse Forever.” The Federation is forever grateful for Ms. Ricky and we look forward to the next chapter of this program.  



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