- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Five killed on roadways this year

NAPLES, Fla. — Seven of about 80 remaining Florida panthers have died in the past two months — including two this week — as dwindling territory, rampant development and swift-moving traffic threaten the cat’s survival as a species.

The animal had rebounded from near extinction in recent years. But a 100-pound male panther, killed by a truck driving up Interstate 75 north of Fort Myers early Monday, became the fifth to die on South Florida roadways since the beginning of the year. Another died Monday of unknown causes on private property, said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“It’s a bittersweet story, because we’ve been working for 20 years to increase the population,” said Deb Jansen, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at Big Cypress National Preserve. “We were successful. We’ve improved their health and their reproduction, however now they have no place to go.”

Related to the mountain lions of the Northwest and the cougars of Texas, the Florida panther has struggled to hang on to an existence in its home range for 100 years. Before American settlement, the state’s soggy plains supported about 1,360 panthers.

By the 1950s, the large cats had become so scarce that Florida banned hunting them. Two decades later, the Florida panther became one of many animals to appear on the federal endangered list with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Somewhere between 20 and 30 panthers roamed the state in 1976, said Chris Belden, panther recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The population climbed in the 1990s, after biologists gave the species a genetic boost by introducing eight Texas cougars into the Florida population.

Since then, the panthers have made a bit of a comeback.

“The flip side is there are more roads out there,” said Laura Hartt, environmental policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation.

Since 2000, 52 panthers have been found dead in Florida, Miss Hartt said. Unlucky encounters with vehicles and territorial disputes are the leading killers.

“We look at these transportation deaths, to the extent that you can provide wildlife crossings, they’re really preventable deaths, so they’re really hard to take,” Miss Hartt said.

She said Florida needs secure stretches of highway where panthers and other animals can cross under the road without risking death.

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