Cars and trucks remain biggest threat to Florida panthers

Vehicles once again rank as the greatest lethal threat to the official state…

Cars and trucks remain biggest threat to Florida panthers

Karl Schneider
 
| Naples Daily News

Cars and trucks remain biggest threat to Florida panthers 1

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Video: Animals use wildlife crossings to safely cross under Florida roads

Watch as bears, panthers, bobcats, alligators and deer use wildlife crossings to safely make it across Florida roads.

Florida Department of Transportation and Collier County Gov.

Vehicles once again rank as the greatest lethal threat to the official state animal, the Florida panther, according to data collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The agency, which publishes the data at its online portal Panther Pulse, listed 22 panther deaths this year, a decline from last year’s 27 reported deaths.

Of the 22 dead panthers found this year, 19 were reported as killed by a car. Last year, 85%, or 23 of the 27 dead panthers found, were killed by vehicles. For contrast, 11 newborns in four litters were reported in 2020 and 11 kittens in five litters were reported in 2019.

The FWC estimates there are between 120-230 adult panthers living in the state. The subspecies of cougar was down to about 30 panthers in the early 1990s.

“Roadkill continues to be a leading cause of death for Florida panthers,” FWC spokeswoman Michelle Kerr wrote in an email. “The FWC takes panther conservation seriously and we continue to work with partners including the Florida Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the number of panthers killed on Florida roadways.”

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Kerr outlined some of those steps, which include improving existing bridges and fences, slower speed zones during nighttime hours and constructing wildlife crossings.

The Florida Department of Transportation builds these crossings and its District 1, which covers Southwest Florida, has placed more than 50 along I-75 and state roads 29 and 80 along with other roadways in the area, FDOT spokeswoman JoAnn May wrote in an email.

Crossings are meant to provide wildlife a route to bypass roads by crossing underneath. FDOT considers the following guidelines, among others, before building a structure:

  • an identified, science-based need supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or FWC
  • documented observations of species in the proposed area
  • documented instances of road kills of species with high conservation value
  • is the project in Florida panther or black bear range

“FDOT has also installed panther fencing (10-foot fencing with inverted barbed wire on the top) to provide a safety barrier for panthers and other wildlife from the roadway and to funnel them to the wildlife crossings,” May wrote. “This not only protects the wildlife but also drivers on the road.”

More: Task force navigates Florida panther protection during toll road meeting

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In Naples, the Florida Wildlife Federation campaigns to secure wildlife crossings in Southwest Florida. The organization’s local field representative, Meredith Budd, said the consistently high percentage of panthers killed by vehicles shows the importance crossings and appropriate fencing can play.

“In general, roads cause one of the largest threats to wildlife worldwide.” Budd said. “It’s the leading cause of death for panthers, clearly from (FWC’s) Panther Pulse page, most deaths have been caused by vehicle strikes.”

While panthers face high morality percentages from vehicles, the Florida Legislature has been moving forward with its proposed statewide toll road system, known as M-CORES. A section of the three-part project, the Southwest-Central Connector, would run from Collier County to Polk County through prime Florida panther habitat.

During one of the connector’s last task force meetings, panthers were a large part of the conversation with a significant portion of the public comment period dedicated to asking for a no-build option to decrease the risk of fragmenting the panther’s habitat as well as reducing the risk of vehicle collisions.

“Essentially the toll roads will act as a catalyst to accelerate the transport of humans into south Florida and accelerate the rate of development and the loss of habitat,” wildlife ecologist Randy Kautz said during that meeting. “There are issues pertaining to fragmentation, for example: the dispersal zone to allow panthers to get into Central Florida would be completely severed.”

More: Task force navigates Florida panther protection during toll road meeting

Aside from fragmentation, new roads will bring vehicles into panther habitat. If it happens, wildlife crossings need to be considered, Budd said.

“FWF has opposed the toll roads since the idea manifested during the legislative session in 2019,” she said. “If the roads do move forward, crossings would be critical. They need to be considered and implemented across the board for roadways that bisect wildlife habitat — and land acquisition is also going to be essential.”

Budd said additional habitat surrounding crossings is needed for them to function properly so wildlife may move through as intended.

As it is, FDOT’s current crossings are mapped out online with many containing cameras that publish photos. The interactive map shows a variety of wildlife such as alligators, deer and black bear using the structures.

“FDOT has constructed dozens of wildlife crossings throughout Southwest Florida that have been incredibly successful in improving wildlife connectivity,” May wrote. “Additionally, the Department has more currently planned.”

The FWC biologists who work with Florida panthers gain valuable knowledge by examining remains, Kerr wrote. If remains are found, the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline can be reached at 888-404-3922.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk

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