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"Panther Alert" for Florida Drivers

January 26, 2009

There is a "panther alert" for Florida drivers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has announced the deaths of three panthers on Florida highways since New Year's Day. That's on pace with the deadliest year for panthers in recent memory, 2007, when 15 were killed. Each mortality is significant because only about 100 of the animals remain in the wild.

Mark Lotz is a panther biologist with the commission. He urges motorists to remember they're in panther country when they drive in the Everglades and Big Cypress areas of south Florida. He cautions that the animals are active at dusk and dawn -- and sometimes later in the day, at this time of year.

"Nobody plans on hitting a panther. The animals don't really understand how fast cars can move and they just dart across the road. It's usually a last-second thing, when you actually see one just before it gets hit. That means drivers must be more cautious and aware."

The Florida panther is the only surviving species of cougar east of the Mississippi River and is considered one of the most endangered mammals on Earth.

According to Lotz, the road-kill problem has been reduced to almost nothing in areas with wildlife underpasses, primarily along I-75 through the Everglades, and he says more underpasses are needed. Critics argue with the current budget crisis, new underpasses are not likely to be funded.

The risk of traffic deaths increases as development brings people closer to panther habitat, explains Elizabeth Fleming with Florida Defenders of Wildlife. She adds that panthers naturally avoid people, but they need about 200 square miles to roam. As development spreads, that space is becoming tougher for the animals to find.

"The largest threat to panther survival is fragmentation and destruction of panther habitat. We've got to conserve these large tracts of intact habitat. The greatest impediment to panther recovery is human intolerance."

Fleming says the Florida Panther Recovery Plan released in December offers hope. It was established to educate the public, to conserve panther habitat and to expand the panther population to other parts of the Southeast. In fact, the surviving panther population lives on five percent of the land where the big cat once roamed.

State wildlife commission biologist Mark Lotz says there's another human health factor intertwined with saving panthers, too.

"When you have all these natural areas set aside, you're providing an opportunity for the aquifers to be replenished. If people want to be able to turn on their tap and have water, wash their cars and such, we need these natural areas not simply for panthers but for our own survival, too."

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL