March 16, 2016
Elizabeth Fleming

Record deaths of Florida panthers from collisions with vehicles are limiting panther range expansion

Why did the Florida panther cross the road? Not just to get to the other side, but to save its kind.

The Florida panther is the last subspecies of puma still surviving in the eastern U.S. Though they used to roam throughout the Southeast, today this panther is restricted to less than 5% of its original range. A massive effort has gone into keeping these big cats from going extinct. While it came close in the 1960s when no more than 20 Florida panthers were left, today that one remaining breeding population has grown to 100-180 adults.

(story continues below)Florida Panther, © USFWS

This small but growing population is in south Florida, an area with protected habitat great for panthers. But for Florida panthers to survive, the growing population needs more room – and that means moving north. In that direction lies even more habitat – swamps, forests, and prairies that will give panthers room to roam, and to establish new territories without competing with one another for resources. But between these panthers’ current habitat and the areas to the north lies a landscape criss-crossed with miles of roads. And as far too many of these endangered panthers have learned over the years, they are no match for a speeding car.

A Record Broken (And Broken Again)

Dead panther, © Heidi Ridgley

2015 marked a new record for the number of Florida panthers killed on highways: 30. In fact, this is the second year in a row that the record has been broken. Eight panthers have been killed on roads so far in 2016. Given the increase in the area’s human population, as well as the panther population, the trend makes sense. While these are alarming numbers, biologists report that more panthers are being born than are dying each year, and the population has continued to grow. That’s great news – but it means we can only keep Florida panthers on a path to recovery if we give them more room. And that means finding a way for them to move safely into central and north Florida.

How Can We Help Panthers Cross the Road?

Wildlife crossings can be an extremely effective tool in preventing panther deaths on roads. Underpasses – combined with fencing along the road to guide panthers to the crossing – are particularly useful, allowing panthers to cross the road by traveling safely under it.

Today, approximately 70 wildlife underpasses have been constructed for panthers in south Florida. And once they get there, there are wildlife crossings constructed for bears in central and north Florida that panthers will also be able to use. Right now, we just need to connect the two. And as part of the Panther Recovery Team, we are in a unique position to make a real, on-the-ground difference for panthers. Florida continues to recognize that providing safe passage for wildlife across its roads is a win-win. So wherever possible, our team is pointing the state towards new opportunities for effective wildlife crossings, and away from transportation projects that could make things worse for Florida panthers and other native wildlife.

Panther crossing

To do this kind of work, you have to play the long game. Wildlife crossing projects require years of vigilance, looking for threats and opportunities, and gathering public support. They also require input from the earliest planning stages, all the way through construction and maintenance. And frankly, they are expensive – often millions of dollars for each crossing. That makes outreach and education about this work all the more important. Counties, cities or states are unlikely to spend that kind of money unless they know the project is something that their residents want (although they do improve safety for the motoring public as well).

It’s a slow process, but this work is leading to improvements on the landscape that will save panthers’ lives for years to come. We’ve worked closely with the Florida Department of Transportation, recommending changes to their Wildlife Crossing Guidelines, and even analyzing and offering recommendations for different crossing designs. We are working to identify where panthers are most at risk, and make sure those sites take priority. And we are analyzing what routes panthers will be most likely to use north of the river, so that we can make similar recommendations to protect habitat there. This kind of landscape-level approach will help protect not only panthers, but many other species affected by habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Quiet Victories – and the Long Road Ahead

Despite the many challenges, we have been able to get some important commitments from FDOT.

Thanks in great part to our colleagues at the Florida Wildlife Federation, FDOT will take several steps to improve safe passage for panthers along a deadly stretch of I-75. There have been an alarming 14 Florida panthers killed by vehicles there since 2004, making this nine-mile segment the deadliest highway for panthers in Florida. And all because it lacks the fencing needed to encourage panthers to use the nearby underpass. Thanks to a great deal of advocacy work and a study commissioned by the Federation, FDOT has agreed to put up fencing along all nine miles of the problem area, and add two new underpasses! This project will go into place in 2016, making the deadliest stretch of highway in the state far safer for wildlife. And these aren’t the only new underpasses planned. Through advocacy efforts in coordination with our partners, we also convinced FDOT to install wildlife crossings on deadly stretches where panthers cross SR 29 and SR 82 when they are widened.

Another great win came in a different form. For some time, FDOT had been planning a bypass road around Immokalee that could take several different forms. One option was to build the road closer to the urban area, so that it will have a minimal impact on wildlife and its habitat. Others included construction right through panther habitat. We have been working for years to encourage the agency to make the right call for wildlife, especially our critically endangered Florida panthers. We spoke at public meetings, participated in workshops, sent comment letters and more. And earlier this month, thanks to consistent pressure and input from wildlife agencies, conservation NGOs and community activists, FDOT took the more harmful options off the table.

Meetings, workshops and transportation planning may not sound like much, but these improvements will save panthers’ lives. We never want to see another tragically broken record like last year. Our hope is that with more commitments like these, we can slowly but surely open the way for Florida panthers to move north, and begin to resettle their historic range.

Author(s)

Elizabeth Fleming

Elizabeth Fleming

Senior Florida Representative
Elizabeth Fleming is responsible for promoting and expanding the field conservation program and operations for the Florida office.

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