Thursday, August 17, 2006

Panther deaths prompt plans for wildlife underpass

By Jeremy Cox
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Naples, Florida -- One evening in July 2004, a 4-year-old female Florida panther tried to cross U.S. 41 East near the Turner River bridge with her two kittens.

State wildlife officers discovered the panther the next morning. A car collision had left her with bleeding wounds and a badly fractured right leg.

After 10 months of mending, the female panther was released back into the wild about seven miles north of U.S. 41. Within 48 hours, the tawny cat returned to the same bridge where she had last seen her kittens. This time, she didn’t survive.

That is a familiar story at the Turner River bridge. Since 1984, four panthers have been killed and three have been injured in the same spot.

The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife asked the state Department of Transportation last June to stop the killing by constructing a $4 million wildlife underpass.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to sponsor the group’s application for funding from a $13 million statewide transportation enhancement program. Florida DOT officials are reviewing the proposal, which, if OK’d, would receive money in 2008 or 2009.

“The number of panthers being killed (on roads) throughout South Florida is really high,” said Defenders of Wildlife’s Florida director Laurie MacDonald. “This was a target area we felt was really important.”

Since 1972, vehicles have killed 92 panthers on Florida’s roads — 54 of those deaths have come since 2000. Scientists estimate there are only about 80 panthers remaining in South Florida, making the species one of the most endangered in the world.

This year, vehicles are responsible for eight panther mortalities so far. That includes the Jan. 14 death of a pregnant panther at Turner River and U.S. 41, about 30 yards away from a panther crossing warning sign.

Elusive and shy, panthers prefer to travel under cover. A dense forest of cypress trees surrounds U.S. 41 on both sides of Turner River, which is on the western end of Big Cypress National Preserve.

“There’s something about that location that draws panthers,” said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of several environmental advocates who have written letters in support of the bridge project.

A University of Florida wildlife researcher working for Florida DOT identified the location in 2000 as a good candidate for an underpass.

The application calls for raising and extending the existing bridge to allow wildlife to walk between the bridge and the river. The proposal also includes a fence on both sides of the road stretching 2.5 miles from Bass Road to Turner River Road.

The underpasses will be similar to the 24 wildlife bridges that were completed along Interstate 75 in eastern Collier County by 1993. No panthers have been killed along that 40-mile stretch since then.

The four underpasses on State Road 29, which runs along the western edge of the Big Cypress preserve, have had the same result. Two additional underpasses are under construction on S.R. 29 north of I-75.

The underpass proposal also calls for extending the fence around the entirety of the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Dave Shealy, who also keeps livestock in pens on the property, said he would welcome the fence as long as it doesn’t restrict his access to the surrounding preserve.

Officials have tried to stem the panther death toll on U.S. 41 East. The 60 mph daytime speed limit is lowered to 45 mph at night, when panthers are most active.

State wildlife officers actively enforce those speeds. In 2005, they issued 41 citations and 45 warnings to speeding drivers in the panther zone, according to the Defenders of Wildlife’s application.

On the night when the 4-year-old female panther was first struck near the bridge, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers were on patrol in the area.

They signaled at one vehicle to make it slow down. Although the driver complied, the vehicle still hit the panther as it scampered across the two-lane road. One of the panther’s kittens later was found dead from a vehicle strike on the same stretch of road; the other is suspected of dying from lack of care but never has been found.

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