Friday, August 25, 2006

Florida panther killed in collision with truck

Panther killed in collision with truck in rural Lee [County]
By Julio Ochoa

Friday, August 25, 2006

Gregg Cross saw his first wild panther Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, as is common in most Florida panther sightings, the cat was dead.

Still, the 136-pound, fully grown, 3- to 4-year-old male left quite an impression.

"It wasn’t moving, but you could still see the light in its eyes," Cross said. "It was really eerie. You could see like almost steam coming off its body. The eyes looked almost alive."

Moments before Cross drove by the panther on east Corkscrew Road near the intersection of Alico Road, a westbound truck hit and killed it.

The accident happened just after 5:30 a.m. on a rural part of Corkscrew Road, which becomes a major throughway for commuters who use it to cut to Interstate 75 from Immokalee and Lehigh Acres.

Early morning drivers can reach speeds of 75 mph, Cross said.

The road is just one area where Southwest Florida's eastward development encroaches on panther habitat.

Though vehicles kill panthers, the loss of habitat ultimately will lead to the death of the species, said Chris Belden, panther recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Death is not as important as the loss of habitat to development," Belden said. "The habitat is what it takes to produce panthers. Without the habitat panthers can't survive."

So far this year, there have been 14 panther deaths in Florida, eight of which were caused by vehicle collisions, said Darrell Land, panther team leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. At the same time, 19 kittens were born, Land said.

"It does seem like, regardless of these losses, there are certainly replacements being made, so hopefully we'll be able to maintain the status quo," he said.

The status quo in South Florida is between 80 and 100 panthers. That's up from an estimated 30 panthers that roamed the same area about 30 years ago. By some accounts, South Florida only can handle about 80 to 100 panthers.

Any hopes of increasing the panther population beyond the status quo diminishes with their shrinking habitat, Land said.

"The real challenge is: Can we preserve enough land that supports the 80 to 100 panthers so 20 years from now we can have 80 to 100 panthers?" he said.

The panther killed Thursday was not the first death on the eastern ends of Corkscrew and Alico roads, Land said.

During the late 1980s others were killed by vehicles on Alico Road around Southwest Florida International Airport, he said.

Thursday's cat likely was heading north where some habitat still remains, though it is diminishing daily.

Drivers on Treeline Avenue on the way to the airport's new terminal can see panther-crossing signs, though development is mowing down habitat on either side of the road.

"The future looks bleak for panthers in Lee County because of all the growth that's happened," Land said.

Belden put together a plan that outlines what it would take to recover the endangered species, some of which, he said, "will never be able to happen."

It would take 240 panthers to create a population that would have no loss of genetic material and could maintain itself for more than 100 years, Belden said. For the federal government to take the panther off its endangered species list, it would need three populations of 240 animals, he said.

With panthers needing a range of between 100 and 150 miles, there is simply not enough space in South Florida for that many panthers, Belden said.

Instead, scientists have to manage the population artificially by introducing genetic material, he said.

Scientists monitor about one-third of Florida’s panther population by placing collars or microchips on the animals.

The panther killed Thursday had neither.

In dangerous wildlife crossing areas, officials build bridges, under which animals can cross. The truck hit Thursday’s panther about 300 feet from such an underpass, Land said.

If there is a silver lining to Thursday's death, it could be that the panther possibly was expanding its range by heading north, said Stephen Williams, president of the nonprofit Florida Panther Society.

If panthers can expand their range into parts of central and northern Florida, they have a better chance of multiplying and surviving, he said.

"Some look at this as a tragedy, but it's an indicator that cats are adapting," Williams said.

Now if only people would learn to adapt by watching out for wildlife on the roads, he said.

"By and large it's a matter of consciousness and dedication to being a good driver," Williams said.

"Get the cell phone out of your ear and pay attention to the beauty of Florida. You might see a cat."

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