Watch a panther, bear, bobcat and a turkey family take selfies as they are photographed with a camera trap Andrew West/news-press.com
Crews have closed a gap in wildlife fencing along Alligator Alley that has long been a hot spot for Florida panther roadkills.
The $2 million project, which wrapped up last week, replaced a 4-foot fence with a 10-foot fence along both sides of a 9-mile stretch of Interstate 75 from the Naples tollbooth to the Faka-Union Canal.
Farther east of the canal, where wildlife crossings are built under the highway, both sides of the highway already are lined with a 10-foot fence with barbed wire on top.
Since 2007, 13 panthers have been killed by vehicles along the stretch of road with the shorter fence, making it one of the deadliest for the endangered species and risking drivers' lives.
It took a 2015 report by a transportation ecologist, commissioned by the Florida Wildlife Federation, to persuade the Florida Department of Transportation to build the taller fence. The DOT announced plans for the fencing months later.
"We're very pleased FDOT responded so quickly and completely," said Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative for the federation.
Florida panthers are on the rebound in numbers since nearly going extinct before a genetic restoration project.
Scientists estimate the number of panthers could be as high as 230. But some say that number is too low, given increases in panther attacks on livestock and record panther deaths on Florida roads.
This year, 15 panthers have been found dead, including 11 killed on roads. The other causes of death are unknown or attributed to territorial fights with other panthers.
Earlier this year, Florida panther conservation reached a long-awaited milestone when panther kittens were seen north of the Caloosahatchee River.
Biologists concluded that although the Alligator Alley fencing blocks an important north-south travel path for panthers along a long stretch of the highway, stopping roadkill was the higher priority.
"Cats cross it all the time," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Mark Lotz said. "Every place they can get to for food or mates or just avoiding each other is important to them."
Another wildlife project at the eastern end of the new fenced stretch of highway will help panthers cross the Alley, Lotz said.
Crews replaced piles of boulders with 2-foot-wide paths along the banks of the Miller and Faka Union canals where the Alley crosses over them.
Before the ledges were built, wildlife cameras under the canal bridges recorded only a raccoon and a rat crossing beneath the bridge over a two-month period.
For two months after the ledges were built, cameras captured a Florida panther, coyote, raccoon and opossum passing through.
"It's much improved now," Lotz said.