Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fla. panther crossing signs removed by Lee County

By Denise L. Scott
dscott@news-press.com
Originally posted on July 04, 2007

The panther crossing signs along Treeline Avenue in south Lee County were removed Tuesday.

The reason: “Panther habitat is not there,” said Harry Campbell, Lee Department of Transportation’s chief traffic engineer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave Lee County transportation officials permission to remove all 11 signs between Daniels Parkway and Terminal Access Road.

“Apparently that’s why Fish and Wildlife said we can take them down,” Campbell said. “I don’t think anybody’s seen a panther in that area for years.”

Panthers are on Florida’s endangered species list. Today’s panther population is 80 to 100.

This year 14 panthers have been killed by vehicles in Florida, an all-time high.

Treeline runs from Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers south to the new entrance to Southwest Florida International Airport.

Treeline becomes Ben Hill Griffin Parkway at that point and continues south to Corkscrew Road in Estero, completing the 11-mile corridor. County officials are still waiting for permission to remove the rest of the signs farther south on Ben Hill.

Paul Souza, field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s south Florida office, said his office recommended panther crossing signs when it reviewed the airport’s expansion in 2001. The stretch of road from Daniels Parkway to Alico Road opened in February 2005 with the signs — required by environmental permits — installed less than a half-mile apart.

“Since that time, there has been significant development in that area,” Souza said. “The degree to which the area provides habitat for panthers is compromised because of the development.”

Souza said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed that the signs should be removed.

But not everyone agrees. J.P. Morgan, 47, of Fort Myers uses Treeline every day for his namesake limousine service.

“I still think there’s animals living in the area. I know they killed a panther on (State Road) 82 not long ago,” he said, referring to a male panther killed by a vehicle in June.

Morgan said he isn’t sure how many drivers paid attention to the signs, but he thinks they should stay up.

Panthers aren’t unheard of in the Treeline corridor, which carried nearly 29,000 vehicles per day south of Daniels in 2006.

In August 1993, a young male was killed on Daniels Parkway near Chamberlin Parkway, the old airport entrance.

Since then, the Treeline corridor has exploded with growth — the new airport terminal, Gulf Coast Town Center, Florida Gulf Coast University, Germain Arena, Miromar Outlets — and countless commercial projects in the works.

More recent panther deaths have occurred on Corkscrew Road to the south. A male panther was killed last year and a female was killed in May.

And in March, a young male was killed just west of Ben Hill on Interstate 75 north of Corkscrew.

Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, is glad the signs are gone.

“They were meaningless anyway,” she said. “… It doesn’t make sense to have panthers in an area of high traffic and clearing for development. On one hand, you’re telling people it’s panther habitat. On the other hand, it’s being decimated.”

Payton said she’s seen as many “will build to suit,” “for sale” and “coming soon” signs as panther signs.

“There is no habitat,” she said.

That doesn’t mean Treeline is going to become a freeway. Its speed limit was increased from 45 mph (40 at mph night) to 50 mph in February and won’t be changed again, said Lee DOT Traffic Engineer Steve Jansen.

“We’ll probably hold onto (the panther signs) in case we have to put them back up or have to use them on another project,” Campbell said, noting that the signs cost less than $100 each. “We also recycle.”

http://www.news-press.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? AID=/20070704/NEWS0105/70704001/1075

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