By Jeremy Cox
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Collier County commissioners vowed today to join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to construct more wildlife underpasses on Collier roads, which have seen 40 Florida panther deaths since 2000.
Run-ins with vehicles are the top known killer of panthers, and Collier is ground zero for such accidents, panther experts say.
Noting that a record 11 panthers died last year on Florida roads, Paul Souza, head of Fish and Wildlife's Vero Beach office, said: "This represents arguably more than 10 percent of the panther population. I think the gravity of this is very clear."
About 80 to 100 panthers remain in the wild, triple the number from a decade ago but still low enough to rank the species among the most critically endangered on the planet.
Underpasses have been successful in preventing panther deaths on roads such as Alligator Alley and State Road 29. A recent study, sponsored by the Florida Wildlife Federation, Collier landowners and others, called for building 18 wildlife underpasses, resembling small bridges, and 22 box culverts along rural Immokalee Road, Oil Well Road and S.R. 29.
Commissioner Tom Henning urged his fellow commissioners to move forward with an agreement that would crystallize the county's support for more underpasses.
"The panther is not going away," he said. "So let's deal with it and make it a positive for our citizens and our community."
But several commissioners were upset that the county was being asked to shoulder so many burdens for a species that once ranged throughout the Southeastern United States. The panther's habitat is about 5 percent of its original size.
"If you look at this range, nothing was done until (panthers) were down to Southwest Florida, and now you're saying it's our problem," Commissioner Frank Halas said.