COLLIER COUNTY — Three endangered Florida panthers have been killed in the past three days along U.S. 41 East in Collier County, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported Monday.
The grisly weekend string of roadkills on the two-lane rural road prompted a warning from wildlife officials to obey speed limits in panther zones and prompted a conservation group to urge stepped up efforts to stem the death toll.
“That road, something needs to be done,” said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
The latest panther roadkill, an 8-month-old male panther kitten, was found Sunday morning on U.S. 41 west of Manatee Road.
That kitten is not one of the kittens that biologists had been trying to find after a 5-year-old female panther was killed Saturday, about a half-mile east of San Marco Road, Conservation Commission biologist Dave Onorato said.
On Friday, a 4-year-old male panther was found on a stretch of 41 that cuts through Big Cypress National Preserve, about a mile west of Monroe Station.
The weekend deaths bring to eight the number of panthers killed in collisions with vehicles so far this year. That’s almost half of last year’s record of 17 panther roadkill deaths.
“It’s not something we like to have happen, that’s for sure,” Onorato said.
After the kitten was found Sunday morning, FWC law enforcers stepped up patrols of the area for fear that the mother panther also could be close to the highway and at risk.
So far this year, 66 citations and nine warnings have been issued to motorists violating panther speed zones, where the speed limit is 45 mph at night, according to the Conservation Commission.
Onorato said biologists have been unable to find two kittens that the mother panther left behind when she was killed Saturday.
“It’s kind of like finding a needle in a moving haystack,” Onorato said.
They likely will perish because they are too young to hunt for themselves, he said.
The uptick in panther roadkill deaths is a function of a growing population running out of safe places to roam, Onorato said.
Scientists estimate that between 100 and 120 panthers, not including kittens, remain in the wild.
A genetic restoration project that introduced Texas cougars into Southwest Florida is credited with bringing the population up from a low of about 30 wildcats.
Defenders of Wildlife called for a wildlife safety plan for U.S. 41 between Naples and Miami and more panther warning signs.
The groups also called for displays at South Florida airports and at attractions and public service announcements by Collier and Dade counties to urge motorists to be on the lookout for panthers on U.S. 41.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.