Sep 23, 2007

Panthers and Vehicles

florida pantherThe Defenders of Wildlife report that Florida officials have just logged the 15th death of an endangered Florida panther on the state’s roadways this year, which beats last year’s record of 11 panthers killed by vehicles.

According to the Defenders, “The panther was a two-year-old male discovered on I-75 just west of SR-29. I-75 runs through Big Cypress National Preserve and along the Florida National Panther Refuge, and SR-29 runs along the refuge, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Big Cypress.”

At the present time, there are fewer than 100 Florida panthers in existence and they are currently living in an area that is only 5% of their original southeastern range. Biologists estimate that a population of 240 panthers is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the species, but the current number of animals are struggling with rapid human development and loss of vital habitat, which leads to more vehicle collisions. According to biologists, a single adult male panther will defend a territory covering 200 square miles or more, so the animals’ needs often outstrip the amount of protected land.

Adding to the problem are criticisms that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not been using good science to determine the panthers’ needs and has been rubber-stamping developers’ plans to build on vital habitat. A whistleblower lawsuit led the Service to commit to adopting a more rigorous scientific process for studying panther behavior patterns and for mitigating the effects of human development, but there are still concerns by conservationists that developers are having too much of a say in the Service’s scientific decisions regarding panther protection. (See National Wildlife Federation article “Cats on a Collision Course” from April/May 2007 issue.)

Among the more successful methods of panther protection has been the use of directional fencing and wildlife crossings. Around Alligator Alley, the Florida Department of Transportation has installed 24 underpasses, 13 bridge extensions, and large amounts of directional fencing, which has greatly reduced panther-vehicle collisions. The goal now is to encourage the Florida Dept. of Transportation to install similar devices during future road projects.

The Defenders are a member of the federal Florida Panther Recovery Team and the state Florida Panther Technical Advisory Council. Their recommendations include:

  • The creation of a regional transportation plan that protects panthers, other wildlife and motorists in southwest Florida counties;
  • The protection of panthers along more highway segments by incorporating wildlife crossings, fencing and additional speed zones in appropriate locations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, southwest Florida transportation departments and area developers;
  • Accelerating the building of wildlife crossings by FDOT and county road commissions in identified areas of critical need;
  • Consultations between FDOT and panther biologists to determine shortcomings at particular crossings and fix any problems;
  • Having Governor Crist and the Florida legislature reauthorize and increase funding to the Florida Forever land acquisition program, which will help secure the necessary habitat for panthers and other wildlife and allow them to roam freely and safely.

Visit the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge website to learn more about the endangered Florida panther and this important refuge, which protects not only panthers but also the endangered wood stork and 40 species of rare native orchids.

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