Thursday, December 21, 2006

2006 deadliest year yet for Florida panther

Eleven of the endangered big cats were killed on roads, mostly in Collier.

By KATE SPINNER
kate.spinner@heraldtribune.com

Roadways proved deadlier than ever for Florida panthers this year.

Eleven of the endangered cats have became roadkill since January, more than any year on record.

Biologists estimate that 90 to 100 Florida panthers, a subspecies of the cougar, exist.

"Obviously, losing 11 panthers in a year is not a real good thing," said Chris Belden, panther recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Increasing traffic and development in the land where panthers roam does not bode well for the cat's future.

"I don't think we'll ever recover the Florida panther. Right now we're more or less trying to prevent its extinction," Belden said.

The latest panther death occurred last week on a rural Collier County road, which has become a notorious death trap in the past two years.

Mark Lotz, wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the danger zone seems to lie within a five-mile stretch of County Line Road near Immokalee.

Transportation officials are already planning to build a wildlife crossing there.

Last year and the year before, nine panthers died on Florida roads, many of them also on County Line Road.

Ten died on roads in 2003, the last record-setting year.

Elizabeth Fleming, the Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the number of panthers dying on roads is too high for a species so close to extinction.

"If you think of what the size of the panther population is, it's a huge hit to take every year," Fleming said. "The answer is not to develop the only place in the world where panthers live."

Belden said he is not shocked by the rising number of deaths because both panthers and people have become more plentiful in recent years.

"The more panthers, the more cars, the higher the probability of panthers being hit," Belden said.

Panthers recently rebounded from a low population of about 25 a decade ago.

But the panther's shrinking habitat barely supports the population that exists today in South Florida.

"Panther have just about filled up the habitat they can occupy," Belden said.

So, the animals die crossing roads and in fierce battles over territory.

All told, wildlife officials found 19 dead panthers this year. Four of them died in territorial disputes in the wilderness.

Lotz said most panther deaths away from roads are not recorded because only about a third of the panthers wear radio collars, which transmit data on their whereabouts to scientists.

The male panther that died last week was not collared.

Based on data transmitted by the collars, the wildlife service recently shrunk the boundary where it assumes panthers live.

The wildlife service uses the boundary to guide development decisions in panther habitat.

Lotz said the change probably won't make a difference because the regulatory boundary that existed has not stopped growth in panther habitat.

Development "is going to happen regardless. I haven't seen anything to stop it yet, except the Atlantic," Lotz said.

Last modified: December 20. 2006 5:39AM

http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? AID=/20061220/NEWS/612200414

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