Speeding kills: Number of panthers dying on Florida's roads rising every year

15 dead panthers. With so many cars and so many miles of asphalt, law enforcement officers are facing a near impossible task of slowing down the number of vehicle-related deaths for the species.

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A red minivan hurtles its way through the darkness along a blacktop that bisects an otherwise unbroken stretch of wilderness between Alligator Alley and Immokalee’s farm country.

The dashboard-mounted radar gun in Steve Wicker’s cruiser shrieks to life. Its high-pitched wail drowns out the only other sound in the cabin: the unsettling hum of an army of mosquitoes, readying for war.

“Sixty-eight,” Wicker informs his partner.

“Behind us?” Shawn Polly asks from the backseat.

“Yep” comes the reply from behind the wheel.

“Good deal.”

And just like that, Wicker and Polly are gaining on the Mercury Villager, strobe lights spinning down State Road 29. The pair are Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law-enforcement officers on a mission to protect a highly endangered species: the Florida panther.

Statistics show that such crackdowns are generally working in the 21 miles of rural roadway in Collier County designated as panther speed zones. Since 2005, only four panthers have died while crossing a road inside a panther zone.

But there are too many cars, too many miles of asphalt and too many cats for officers to stanch the bloodbath on Florida’s roads. By June 23, barely halfway through the year, more panthers had been run over in 2007 than any other year. The death toll now stands at 15, three more than the previous high.

The panther, a cougar subspecies found primarily in Southwest Florida, hasn’t been this healthy in at least 50 years.

Or so vulnerable.

A breeding program with Texas cougars has tripled the panther’s population to nearly 100 cats over the past decade. The hybrid kittens happened on the scene about the same time as the baby boomers, whose retirement plans sparked a bonfire of new homes and golf courses on turf once ruled by panthers.

The two populations have been on a collision course ever since.

“Just a few years ago, we were facing extinction, and now we have greater (panther) numbers, less habitat and more people,” said Capt. Jayson Horadam of the state wildlife commission who added that a corresponding jump in panther deaths is “inevitable.”

Many panther advocates and biologists, though, say it doesn’t have to be that way. Their calls for raising roads out of harm’s way in panther habitat, backed by new research in support of such efforts, are persuading public officials to spend millions of dollars to protect the big cats.

But that movement is in for a big test.

If state and local transportation officials have their way, about 56 miles of new roads will be paved in key panther habitat lying in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties in coming decades, a Daily News analysis shows. Another 198 miles of existing roads will be widened.

Plans, for example, call for expanding the four-lane portion of State Road 80 between the Lee-Hendry county line and LaBelle to six lanes, and from there east to U.S. 27 from two lanes to four — a total of 30 widened miles.

Just east of LaBelle is what panther researchers call the “dispersal zone,” the only remaining sliver of green space for panthers to pad through to reach the Caloosahatchee River and beyond.

Encouraging panthers, especially females, to move north into Central Florida is one of the central tenets of the animal’s federal recovery plan. Federal wildlife officials are requiring the state to build two wildlife crossings along that stretch.

Doyle Cook, a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, issues a speeding ticket to a driver on State Road 29. During the day the speed limit is 60 mph through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, but it drops to 45 mph after dark.

Photo by JAKOB SCHILLER, Daily News

Doyle Cook, a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, issues a speeding ticket to a driver on State Road 29. During the day the speed limit is 60 mph through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, but it drops to 45 mph after dark.

But many other road plans abound.

State and local officials are pondering looping State Road 29 to the east of Immokalee for 11.4 miles. Vanderbilt Beach Road might become 11 miles longer, reaching as far east as Desoto Boulevard. Lee County is considering a network of new roads to the east of Bonita Springs and Estero, including running Bonita Grande Drive as far north as the yet-to-be-extended Coconut Road.

The Daily News analysis didn’t include the proposed Heartland Parkway because its route remains nowhere near settled. But the highway’s boosters, a group that doesn’t include Gov. Charlie Crist, have indicated it might be routing traffic between Immokalee and Polk County some day.

The federal plan aimed at saving the species warns of trouble ahead as roads expand in panther territory.

“(New) and existing roads, expansion of highways and increases in traffic volume and speed contribute to a loss of panther habitat and impede movement within and between high-use habitat blocks throughout the landscape,” it said. “New and expanded highways are likely to increase the threat of panther mortality and injuries due to collisions.”

Addressing the problem

Road-related deaths are adding up — 77 since 1997, compared to only 25 during the previous quarter-century. Scientists now estimate that one of five panther deaths is caused by vehicles.

Wary of public outcry over the rise, state officials have scrambled to show they are addressing the problem.

Ryan Knutson, a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, checks the speed of drivers heading south along the section of State Road 29 that passes through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by JAKOB SCHILLER, Daily News

Ryan Knutson, a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, checks the speed of drivers heading south along the section of State Road 29 that passes through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

“OK, guys, we need to gear up for media coverage of the high number of road kills,” Kipp Frohlich, head of the state’s endangered species program, told local biologists in an e-mail after the 13th panther of 2007 was hit and killed. “I think we need to help define this issue rather than having it defined for us.”

The reply from the state’s panther team leader, Darrell Land, based in Naples, would become the foundation for the agency’s public response. In a press release, drawn largely from Land’s comments, FWC acknowledged the increase in panther fatalities while touting a series of new underpasses and other projects aimed at preventing further deaths.

But this sobering remark from Land’s original comments was omitted from the public version: “There simply are not enough resources to fully protect panthers on all roadways.”

Wildlife advocates say that underpasses may be the answer to the panther’s woes. A typical underpass consists of a 50-foot span of raised roadway with fences along the adjacent grade-level blacktop to direct animals toward safe passage.

Their case study: Alligator Alley. The treacherous two-lane road was ground zero for vehicle-related panther deaths until the late-1980s, when 36 bridges were constructed along 40 miles in eastern Collier County as part of its transformation into an interstate.

As longtime Collier County environmentalist Franklin Adams remembers it, the wildlife bridges were a concession to opponents like himself who supported a northern route instead. The “Marshall Route,” named for Arthur R. Marshall, the late Everglades advocate, would have had I-75 hooking eastward at Fort Myers and ending in West Palm Beach.

A dead female lies on the shoulder of State Road 29 nearly three miles north of Oil Well Road in October 2004. The panther was believed to have been about 2 years old.

Mark Lotz/Special to the Daily News

A dead female lies on the shoulder of State Road 29 nearly three miles north of Oil Well Road in October 2004. The panther was believed to have been about 2 years old.

The Florida Game and Fish Commission, a precursor to the FWC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sided with environmentalists and the crossings went up.

One panther has been hit where the taller fences stand, and west of Everglades Boulevard, where all that stands between panthers and the pavement is a cattle fence, a handful have been struck, including one in April.

Underpasses aren’t cheap. One can cost up to $4 million.

As of August, three crossing projects appeared to have enough public financial backing to move forward.

Two underpasses will be built when workers widen Oil Well Road from two lanes to six near Ave Maria, reopening a key panther corridor between Camp Keais Strand and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, biologists say. Another is pegged for construction at U.S. 41 East at Turner River in 2008 or 2009.

A fourth underpass might be raised on County Road 846 east of Immokalee, this time without taxpayer money. Citygate Development LLC wants to fund the project as mitigation for a business park it is building more than 30 miles away near the intersection of Collier Boulevard and I-75.

At the center of the push for more crossings is Nancy Payton, the Naples field representative with the Florida Wildlife Federation. She built an unlikely coalition of environmental groups and large landowners in eastern Collier that supported a $109,000 crossing study.

“I learned from the developers that if they want to move something along, they pay for it,” Payton said.

Many more crossings are needed, according to the study, released last December by University of Central Florida and University of Florida researchers. The report recommended 40 new crossings along three highways in the Immokalee area: Immokalee Road, Oil Well Road and State Road 29.

As a result, Collier County commissioners soon will consider signing an agreement with the federal Fish and Wildlife to develop crossings at 22 locations along those highways. A draft of the agreement also includes a provision that the county preserve “adequate acreage” adjacent to the crossings and erect barrier fencing.

The deal, however, is less specific on how the effort will be funded, specifying only that the county and federal governments will “work together” to find the money.

The crossings themselves aren’t problem-free. On June 11, a male panther believed to be between 20 and 24 months old was struck and killed inside the fencing at the Jerome crossing on S.R. 29.

“I knew what it was right away,” said Josh O’Connor, a firefighter with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. He was the first to report the mangled cat to authorities.

This wasn’t his first dead panther. O’Connor said that he and other firefighters are often called upon to verify sightings of stiffened panthers to make the trip worthwhile for state biologists. The biologists truck the carcasses back to their office in Naples, where they are held in freezers until they can be sent to Gainesville for a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy.

But this time wasn’t like the rest.

“I hadn’t seen one in that shape before,” O’Connor said. “It wasn’t how it should look. It was just kind of shocking to see.”

Shocking enough to prompt a federal biologist to put her foot down. Deborah Jansen works at Big Cypress National Preserve, the 720,000-acre federal holding that runs along much of the east side of S.R. 29. The highway needs to be completely fenced off, she now tells anyone who will listen.

“I don’t think we should be lulled into complacency that panthers down here have habitat and everything is good,” Jansen said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is looking into her request, but other scientists warn of unintended consequences. Too many fences would restrict panther movements, limiting their ability to find prey and new mates, critics say.

So far, panther births seem to be keeping pace with deaths, said Chris Belden, a longtime panther scientist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Most of the flattened cats are young males searching for territory of their own.

“When we start seeing more and more adult females becoming road kill, that would not be good,” Belden said. “That would be getting into our reproduction.”

The speed trap

Back on mosquito-filled S.R. 29, Wicker clocks a southbound truck cresting a panther underpass at 92 mph. The infraction comes just a few miles south of a group of flashing yellow lights and signs warning drivers they are entering a panther zone and to “Please Drive Carefully.”

Two officers in an FWC pickup have joined the stakeout and chase down the speeding truck.

This is earlier in the night, and the officers decide it’s still light enough to enforce the daytime speed limit of 60 mph. The driver leaves with a $310 citation and a mandatory court appearance — the standard penalty for exceeding the speed limit in a panther zone by more than 30 mph.

Drivers going 20 to 29 mph over the limit face a $210 fine; for going 15-19 mph over the limit there’s a $185 fine. Speeders clocked within 20 mph of the limit generally leave with a warning, Wicker says.

FWC officers patrol 21 miles of rural roadway in Collier County designated as panther speed zones. The speed limit drops to 45 mph inside the zones at night, when panthers are most active. (Daytime speed limits are posted on the same signs, but that portion appears blacked out at night because it lacks a reflective coating.)

The zones run for seven miles each on three highway segments: State Road 29, north of the Alley, S.R. 29 near Jerome and U.S. 41 East near Turner River.

During the 30 months preceding last June, FWC officers handed out 856 tickets in these zones, most of them at night. After the sun sets, “everyone is pretty much going 20 over,” Wicker says.

The 856 panther speed zone tickets have drawn more than $200,000 in fines. But little of that money is directed back into panther conservation efforts. A ticket for driving 25 mph above the limit, for example, will deposit $5 into the state’s Nongame Wildlife Trust Fund.

The fund is used for supporting research of critters in danger of dying out, from sandhill cranes to spotted sea trout. A search of the word “panther” in an online database of the state reports finds 14 matches dating back to 1977 (a typical report title: “Hematologic and serum biochemical reference intervals for Florida panthers”).

Horadam said he has asked the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol to assist the FWC in monitoring the panther zones. Officials with both agencies have indicated their willingness to help, he added.

FWC biologists are looking into what other areas might benefit from a speed-zone treatment. One of the leading candidates is Keri Road, a two-lane ribbon that traverses Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest in Hendry County, Horadam said. The corridor has seen three panther deaths since the start of the year.

In the meantime, catching speeders in Collier County is a top priority.

Their excuses vary. A man behind the wheel of a black Infiniti M35 tells Wicker he had just passed a truck hauling a boat and had forgotten to slow down. The woman driving the red minivan claims she thought she was being followed by a man with untoward intentions (she gets off with a reduced fine).

And then there’s the unique defense Wicker heard a few years back.

“He told me he was scared for his life because he was worried that if he stopped, an alligator would get him,” Wicker says, laughing.

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Jeremy Cox is a correspondent for the Daily News. He can be reached at jcoxreporter@yahoo.com

© 2007 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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