Panther-vehicle fatalities surge to record high
Wildlife groups are calling on local, state and federal authorities ‘to end the bloodbath’
By Jeremy Cox
Originally published — 4:56 p.m., June 25, 2007
Updated — 8:50 p.m., June 25, 2007
At the end of a cramped hallway inside the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s office in Naples hangs an emblem of the Florida panther’s sorry plight.
The marker board with the words "Panther Pulse" at the top displays a pair of critical lists: the known panther deaths and births so far this year. At the end of the workday Friday, the tally stood at 18 fatalities and 29 new kittens.
By Monday morning, the death toll had reached 20. Two panthers died late Friday or early Saturday on Southwest Florida roads, the 12th and 13th to perish this year after run-ins with vehicle grills.
The first fatality broke a tie for most vehicle-related panther deaths in a single year, and the second elevated the record to a new high. Four of this year’s road kills have come in June.
State biologists who track the endangered animal see the sad statistic as an indication that the panther has succeeded beyond its means in Southwest Florida.
"It could be evidence they’ve shot up beyond carrying capacity, and they’re coming down to a more stable level," said Mark Lotz, a wildlife biologist with the state wildlife commission.
Collier County Sheriff’s Office deputies reported a dead male panther Saturday morning lying on State Road 29, about two miles south of Immokalee. State wildlife biologist Darrell Land, who responded to the scene, estimated the cat to be 2-3 years old.
Later that day, a staffer at Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest called in another dead panther, this one a 20-month-old female flattened along County Road 832 in Hendry County. The body was found about a half-mile west of the fire tower.
The two locations are about 10 miles apart. It was the first time that panthers have been killed in unrelated accidents on the same day, according to state records dating back to 1972.
The 13 panther collisions surpass the previous record of 11, set last year. The average number of annual road-related deaths in the 1990s was two.
The surge in vehicular deaths has attracted the attention of two wildlife groups. Last week, the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Wildlife Federation urged local, state and federal authorities to take certain steps to end the bloodbath.
"At this pace, the best case scenario is that these panther death will just barely be offset by panther births," the nonprofits said in the two-page letter, which was written when the road kill total stood at 11.
"In less than a week, it’s an antiquated letter," said Nancy Payton, a Florida Wildlife Federation representative who was one of the letter’s authors.
The groups’ recommendations to authorities include:
• Developing a regional wildlife crossing plan for Lee, Collier and Hendry counties with the help of state transportation officials and wildlife biologists.
• Extending fencing along State Road 29 in Jerome where two panthers have gotten trapped and run over; the most recent incident was June 11.
• Adopting the westernmost alignment for the County Road 951 extension in southeastern Lee County, sparing panther-sensitive lands to the east.
• Denying a bid to install an interchange on the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75 that would serve a proposed town called Big Cypress.
Collier County commissioners are set to consider signing an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their July 24 meeting laying the groundwork for the creation of a network of wildlife crossings. Drafts suggest building underpasses and preserving wilds next to 22 roadway segments along S.R. 29 and Immokalee and Oil Well roads.
Such efforts come with a hefty price. A pair of new wildlife underpasses on S.R. 29, a few miles north of Alligator Alley, cost nearly $4 million each.
Dodging traffic has become the norm for panthers over the past decade. A successful breeding program boosted their population nearly threefold while a then-frothy real estate market thrust bulldozers inland, into panther territory.
Federal scientists estimate that at least 480 panthers — in two populations of 240 — must be established before the species can be moved from the ranks of the endangered to threatened. Their single population now hovers around 100.
If there is a silver lining in this year’s road-kill data, Land said, it’s that many of the cats were young males that are more easily replaced in the population than their female counterparts.
But, he added: "It is a shame to see their potential go to waste when we’re trying to make a bigger population."
Both of this weekend’s carcasses were taken Monday from Naples to Gainesville, where a state veterinarian will perform necropsies (an autopsy for animals) on the cats. Twenty panthers have died this year from all causes, including 13 vehicle strikes, four from unknown causes and two in fights with other panthers.
A 15-year-old female panther that had been living at a Tampa zoo was put to sleep because of old age.
The bloody years
Here is a look at the number of panther deaths on Florida roadways over the past five years. The average during the 1990s was two a year.
2007 (through Monday) -13*
2004 - 9
2003 - 10
* A record high