Far and away more endangered Florida panthers die in traffic collisions than from any other fate, according to data tracked by wildlife officials in Florida. With hopes of reducing those collisions, the state plans to install a monitoring system to alert motorists to cats approaching them.
Early this week two relatively young male panthers were killed by vehicles. Year-to-date, at least 20 of the big cats have been killed, and 15 of those deaths were linked to vehicle collisions, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Early next year the state will seek designs for a Roadside Animal Detection System -- RADS. As envisioned, this system will employ some sort of motion detector that, when triggered by a panther, will turn on a flashing sign or something similar to warn oncoming traffic. Such systems have been used in Arizona, Wyoming, Washington state, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to warn drivers of approaching elk and deer. Some of these systems trigger a warning sign when animals cross an infrared or laser beam, others are triggered by detecting body heat.
In some cases, collisions have dropped 97 percent, according to Marcel Huijser, a research ecologist at Montana State University who develops the systems. While panthers present more of a ground-hugging target, Mr. Huijser doesn’t think that will be a problem.
"Most (systems) indeed have been targeted at deer, elk, moose, pronghorn," he says. "As far as I know, nothing specifically has been developed for something that’s slightly smaller than a deer, at shoulder height, like a Florida panther. However, I would say if your surface of the soil is relatively level, and if you are able to keep the vegetation down, then there are technologies that should be able to" work with the felines.
Florida panthers were once thought destined to follow the Passenger Pigeon into oblivion. But the species has rebounded from only about 30 animals in the wild in the 1980s to perhaps 100-120 today and seem poised to move towards a sustainable population. But the path is littered with obstacles: inbreeding, a lack of land to roam, and highways that slice through their territories.
Covering 20 miles a day is not unusual for panthers as they hunt white-tail deer, wild hogs, and other small game. Some of those miles, unfortunately, put them on collision course with cars and trucks. To warn motorists of the big cats -- males can stretch 8 feet from tail tip to nose -- a $650,000 grant secured by Defenders of Wildlife is being used to install an “animal detection system.
After Florida Department of Transportation officials choose a system, it will be installed near the junction of the Turner River Road and U.S. 41 in the southwestern corner of Big Cypress National Preserve, which offers, arguably, the best habitat for the cats. With roughly 3,500 vehicles a day zooming through this corner of the preserve, wildlife officials believe placing a detection system in this area could have a significant impact in reducing road-kill deaths of panthers.
“We have clearly a record here of panthers getting hit," Paul Souza, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Ecological Services Office, told the Traveler earlier this year. "This is an important part of the panther primary zone and, as a result, we think this is a great location for RADS.”
While fencing might be a more common approach to keeping panthers out of harm's way, in this area of Florida tribes are concerned about how fences might encroach on their cultural areas, and so officials agreed to look at other possible solutions, Mr. Souza explained. Building tunnels or bridges under or over roads, as is done in some areas where wildlife crossings are needed, likely wouldn't work here, either, due to Florida's high water tables, he said.
"Comparatively speaking, we think that RADS could be a more cost-effective strategy, certainly, we believe a lower cost than some of the $4 million-$5 million crossings and fencing that we’ve seen put in (elsewhere)," the Fish and Wildlife Service official said.
"If this is an approach that is acceptable, as we hope it is, it could provide us an opportunity to put this mechanism in other parts of panther habitat where there are existing roads today," said Mr. Souza. "One of the things that I consistently heard from (the Florida Department of Transportation) was it's very difficult to retrofit an existing road with a crossing and fencing, unless that road is slated for expansion or unless it’s a new road moving into another location. So having RADS be another tool that can address other hot spots soon is something that we’re certainly hopeful will be the case.”
Florida officials hope that design work can be accomplished in time to allow installation of the monitoring system by late next summer or early in the fall.