Wildlife lovers are fervently hoping that 2010 is a better year for Florida panthers than 2009.

Last year saw a record-high 17 deaths of the endangered big cats on Florida roadways—with one of these still under investigation. In 2008, 10 panthers were killed by vehicles.

“Unless we take actions to avoid such tragic losses to Florida’s native wildlife, records like these will continue to be reached each year as more and more roads and developments are built,” says Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The toll that vehicle collisions are taking on the panther’s population is a serious obstacle to their recovery, and the roads and vehicles themselves are inhibiting the panther’s efforts to expand their range.”

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Only about 100 panthers survive in Florida today. That’s up from a low of 20 to 30 individuals two decades ago, but it’s still a dangerously low number. The last panther killed in 2009 was a four-month-old female discovered on New Year’s Eve in Collier County—on a stretch of road that runs through a mix of highly fragmented native habitat and growing suburban neighborhoods, making it an unlikely candidate for a wildlife crossing.

Wildlife crossings and directional fencing have proved very effective in other areas. Wildlife underpasses and bridge extensions installed along 40 miles of I-75 and six areas along SR-29, two large roads that cut through Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and other conservation lands, have markedly reduced vehicle-panther collisions along those road segments. “Still, areas remain on these and other roads that require additional underpasses and fencing,” says Elizabeth Fleming, Defenders’ Florida representative.

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To this end, Defenders is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida transportation officials and other federal and state agencies to help save the panther by incorporating more slow-speed zones, wildlife crossings and fencing along critical highway hot spots.

Defenders is also pushing for innovative technologies that would warn drivers about wildlife approaching roads, working to create a regional transportation plan that protects panthers and striving to protect essential habitat and travel corridors on public and private lands.

“But we all need to do our part to protect the Florida panther and watch out for wildlife while we drive through their habitat,” says Fleming. “It has become clear that people need to drive defensively and remain alert in urbanizing areas that still support wildlife.”

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