Three panthers in three days met untimely ends on U.S. 41, a highway that cuts right through the middle of panther habitat in Collier County. On Sunday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) found a 6- to 8-month-old kitten that was hit early that morning. Officials with the FWC believed the mother of the kitten could be close to the highway and stepped up law enforcement patrols in the area Sunday.
The panther population has increased five-fold since the 1980s, when the population had dwindled to 20-30. Its increase to a current estimate of 100 is a success story, but one tempered with the knowledge that an increasing population means more opportunity for vehicle collisions.
"Losing three panthers in three days saddens all who care for these endangered animals. However, we're heartened when we have a good capture season like this past one, when we captured 11 new panthers," said Darrell Land, the FWC's panther team leader. "Panthers breed throughout the year, and our radio-collared females have already produced 12 kittens. The increase in panther numbers also means that more panthers are roaming the roadways in the Big Cypress area, and drivers should always obey the panther speed zones and slow down from dusk to dawn no matter where they might be driving."
Land noted that two litters of kittens have been lost because of the death of their mothers in the past two months. Kittens are not able to survive on their own until they are big enough to capture prey at approximately 8 months old.
The natural expansion of the panther population means that panther sightings may start to increase throughout Florida; however, the majority of the population still resides south of Lake Okeechobee.
To help protect the large cats from increasing traffic threats, the FWC, Collier County and Lee County sheriff's deputies and the Florida Highway Patrol regularly enforce panther speed zones. Panther speed zones are well-marked, with speed limits reduced at night to 45 mph.
So far this year, 66 citations and nine warnings have been issued to motorists violating panther speed zones. Motorists should be aware that violators often receive fines exceeding $200 for their first offense, and any violation of more than 29 mph over the posted limit will result in a mandatory court appearance.
''The increasing number of panther road kills mirrors the increase in panther numbers,'' Land said. ''However, this does not indicate that the increase of collisions is causing the population to decrease. The FWC continues to work closely with the Florida Department of Transportation to develop measures that will increase motorist and panther safety along Florida's roads.''
FDOT has constructed wildlife crossings, erected fencing and established special panther speed zones, which help lessen the danger to panthers on the roadways.
Panther research and management funding comes directly from the additional fees collected when individuals purchase the Protect the Florida panther specialty license plate. Money also goes to law enforcement to increase patrols in the areas where panthers reside in South Florida.
"We can all assist with helping the panther survive," Land said. "Buy a specialty plate to help fund research, management and enforcement. Lots of people will be on the road this Memorial Day weekend, so please slow down in panther speed zones, particularly from dusk to dawn, when panthers are most active."