Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Florida road system to warn of panthers

by kevin lollar - klollar@news-press.com - March 23, 2010

State and federal agencies are going high-tech to prevent Florida panther roadkill.

This summer, the Florida Department of Transportation will install a series of roadside animal detection systems (RADS) along a section of U.S. 41 near Bass Lake Road within Big Cypress National Preserve.

The detection systems warn motorists that wildlife is near the road. The project will cost $650,000, which comes from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant.

“RADS are used out West and in the Midwest, and they’re showing it’s pretty effective,” said Chris Piazza, a state transportation department project development engineer. “It’s reduced a lot of vehicle collisions with larger species like mule deer.

“We’re hoping our system will work with smaller species like panthers and bears,” Piazza said.

The Florida panther is an endangered species, with about 100 left in the wild.

Last year, 17 panthers were killed by vehicles; the single-year record for roadkill panther deaths is 25, set in 2007.

So far this year, vehicles have killed two panthers, both in Collier County.

Several kinds of warning systems are on the market, including one that shoots a laser beam parallel to a road: When an animal breaks the beam, lights flash to warn drivers.

A ground-penetrating detection system senses vibrations made by animals approaching a road.

“We’re evaluating both,” Piazza said. “If we get both out there, and if they’re effective, we could potentially set the standard for the state.”

Bids for the project will be opened June 8 with final selection of the contractor June 14.

Construction could begin as early as July.

In all, the detection systems will cover 1.3 miles of U.S. 41, an area where five panthers were hit by vehicles from May 1996 through April 2009 (data on how many of those animals died were not available Monday).

Since State Road 84 was expanded to become Alligator Alley — construction was completed in 1993 — the most effective protections against roadkill have been wildlife crossings (tunnels under Interstate 75 and continuous fencing from just east of Golden Gate Estates to the eastern boundary of Big Cypress National Preserve).
To protect cats along U.S. 41, state and federal agencies have decided to try new technology.

“We had a public meeting, and there was a lot of public sentiment against fencing and building additional crossings,” wildlife service spokesman Ken Warren said. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s look at alternatives.’ This technology is out there. There are success stories.”

If the detection systems work on U.S. 41, additional systems might be installed at other roadkill hot spots, Warren said.

“Right now, we’re optimistic that the use of this technology will prove another tool in our kit in terms of reducing threats to panthers,” he said.



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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