Elizabeth Fleming, Florida Representative
Three endangered Florida panthers were killed while trying to cross roads last week in south Florida. This is gut-wrenching news, especially for a species with an estimated 100 to 160 adults left in the wild, and we who spend so much time and effort protecting these big cats all feel each loss deeply. But why is this happening now, and why so many?
Sadly, rashes of deaths like this have happened before; most recently in 2010 when three panthers were killed on the same road in one weekend. Some years, it seems that December and January are especially horrible times for panthers. One year, three panthers were killed in a row, including one on my birthday of December 29, and lasting into New Year’s Day – what an awful way to start a new year! It’s hard to predict when something like this can hit. One year, it looked like we might reach a record year of panthers killed by vehicles by the month of June. We braced ourselves — and then not another single panther was killed for the rest of the year.
Obviously, the small panther population could not withstand these spates of two or three panther deaths if that rate was consistent for the whole year. And fortunately (I want everyone to knock on wood as you read this), this terrible rate doesn’t seem to continue. But why does it happen in the first place?
I asked panther biologists if they could determine a cause for these deaths, and they said that one factor could be the water. Water levels are up right now where panthers roam in south Florida. Roads and paths are dry spots that make panthers’ travels easier, so they are more likely to be using them to travel, and more likely to be exposed to cars and trucks. A lower water level could also be part of the issue. In another year when we had a large number of panthers killed by cars, biologists thought the drought at that time had forced the animals to search for water sources over large areas, which meant they had to cross more roads to meet their needs.
So what is the solution? There are several. First, we’re working to improve road safety for panthers by helping communities implement slower nighttime speed zones and install wildlife underpasses and fencing. Defenders also helps fund panther crossing signs and high-tech motion sensors that warn drivers to slow down when large animals are approaching the road.
Those steps help address areas that are already dangerous to panthers, but it’s also important to prevent the creation of new high-risk roads. That’s why we advocate for conservation-minded transportation planning that considers the dangers that motor vehicle traffic and habitat fragmentation can present for panthers. Another fundamental piece of the puzzle is maintaining large expanses of habitat for panthers where they have a safe place to roam so that they aren’t forced to cross roads just to meet their basic needs. So we also promote projects that help restore the Everglades, support the creation and expansion of national wildlife refuges in the greater Everglades ecosystem, and work to protect connected habitats and travel corridors.
What can you do to help panthers? If you happen to live in Florida, or are visiting here, drive very, very carefully in rural areas, and stay alert, especially in places marked by panther crossing signs. Support our work so that we can continue our efforts to keep roads safe for panthers and humans. And support efforts to restore the Everglades, since so much of the integrity and natural resilience of south and south-central Florida is determined by the water supply. It affects us all, panthers, people and the incredible diversity of life around us.