Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com
Four stretches of road in Collier County rank among the worst hot spots for vehicle collisions with endangered Florida panthers, according to a new report.
The report by a committee of panther advocates, road planners and wildlife agency representatives lists almost 20 road segments in Collier and Hendry counties as candidates for wildlife crossings to reduce panther deaths.
"This should send up some red flags about the need to look at these segments more closely," said Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton, the committee chairwoman.
The study of vehicle collisions, the most common cause of death for panthers, is part of a larger effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the pace of Florida panther recovery.
Scientists estimate the panther population has rebounded from fewer than 30 to as many as 230, leading to record numbers of panther deaths on roads, mostly in Southwest Florida. Last year set another record with 34. This year there have been 19.
Since 1972, when biologists started counting, State Road 29 north of Oil Well Road has notched 14 collisions with panthers as of the end of 2016, making it the report's hottest hot spot.
State Road 29 south of Oil Well Road, and Immokalee Road east of Immokalee each have tallied 12 collisions.
U.S. 41 East as it crosses Turner River through the Big Cypress National Preserve has accounted for 11 collisions.
Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Zach Burch said plans for widening State Road 29 could include new wildlife underpasses.
"That's definitely one of the things we're going to be looking at," Burch said. "Endangered species have to be accounted for out there."
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The hot spot report estimated the cost of building ledges for wildlife to use under a proposed new wider bridge at Owl Hammock curve at between $2 million and $4 million.
An engineering study for the bridge project could be completed this year, but the DOT has not budgeted money for construction.
Collier County could play a role in building crossings at some of the 11 rural bridges the county has tagged for replacement.
The county is looking into designing ledges into some of their bridge replacement plans, project manager Anthony Stoltz said.
Some hot spots are not good candidates for wildlife crossings, Payton said.
"It's not as easy as saying, 'Give me a million bucks and build me an underpass,'" she said. "You have to be strategic about it."
A key to building a wildlife crossing is having large areas of preserve land on either side, something scientists call connectivity.
Connectivity is a challenge, for example, in Golden Gate Estates, a large platted subdivision of single-family lots.
The report recommends driver education and speed enforcement to address a hot spot in the Estates along Golden Gate Boulevard between Wilson and Everglades boulevards.
Four hot spots along the Alligator Alley section of Interstate 75 between the Naples toll booth and the Faka-Union Canal were addressed when the DOT raised fencing along the side of the highway and built wildlife ledges beneath two bridges.
The hot spot report cites efforts by conservationists to put more land into preserve north of the western end of that stretch of highway in Collier before considering new wildlife crossings there.
"I talk about it (crossings) as the cherry on top of the sundae," Payton said.
Bears and panthers captured on motion camera at Picayune Strand Preserve in Florida by Henk Morelisse, a Naples photographer and preservationist.