Heartbreak Highway

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Roads and development spell trouble for Florida's panthers

By Heidi Ridgley

Florida Panther, © Melissa Farlow/National Geographic Stock

© Melissa Farlow/National Geographic Stock
It’s 10:35 a.m. on an April day at the headquarters of Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. A woman in a gray uniform is busy dispatching personnel to the scene of a car accident in the preserve that occurred just moments before I walk in the door. The last thing I hear before being ushered from the room: “Please god, let it turn out to be a dog and not a panther.”

Ron Clark, the preserve’s chief resource manager, drives me to the scene. It’s not far, about three miles up the road on what is known as Tamiami Trail, where the flashing lights of the county sheriff’s squad car scarcely stand out in the intense Florida sun. A uniformed group has assembled by the side of the road. Stretched out in the grass is a beautiful, full-grown Florida panther. Dead, but still warm.

As biologist Steve Schultz slides the cat into a body bag, ranger Drew Gilmour repeats what the county deputy told him before driving away: “It was an Ohio driver, eastbound to Miami. He said he saw something out of his left eye. The cat came up underneath the guardrail. There was a flash and then a boom.”

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“I’m sorry you had to encounter a panther this way,” Clark says to me without taking his eyes off the body, now zipped inside orange nylon.

Only about 100 Florida panthers are left in the United States—an increase from the 30 or so left in 1967 when they became federally protected. Considered vermin and hunted to near extinction by the mid-1950s, they had become so inbred they were spiraling toward extinction until federal and state biologists decided to bring in eight female cougars from Texas in 1995 to reinvigorate the gene pool. Historically the panthers ranged across eight southeastern states, but today they are isolated in south Florida. Here, unchecked development has pushed them into an even tinier and more fragmented part of their former range, forcing them to cross dangerous highways to find food, territory and mates.

In fact, collision with vehicles is one of the leading causes of death for Florida panthers. Today’s victim was the sixth known fatality this year—five of them caused by vehicle collisions—and it’s only April 10. This death is made more poignant when Krista Sherwood, a transportation scholar working under a grant from the National Park Foundation, informs us that this accident happened a mere 700 feet from where a highway wildlife crossing has been proposed.

Tamiami Trail (an ironic name for a paved, two-lane highway with posted speeds of 60 mph to which few drivers seem to adhere) is one of two main arteries from the southwest side of the state to Miami and the Florida Keys, and it’s been spilling the blood of panthers at a nauseating rate. In this spot alone, near the Turner River Bridge, five panthers—including today’s—have been killed since 1996, with three others injured. One of them was an adult female in 2004 with two kittens. She survived—the first hit—and was rehabilitated. After her release nearly 10 months later, she headed straight back to the spot—probably looking for her kittens—and was hit again and killed. One of her kittens was never found. The other was hit at the same spot and was “skin and bones from starvation,” says Deborah Jansen, the Big Cypress wildlife biologist who retrieved him from the road.

Had the wildlife crossing been there then—and today—it’s possible none of these panthers would’ve been killed. The crossings blend into habitat, enticing the big cats and other wildlife—deer, bears, even otters—to use them. Another crucial component is fencing, which funnels animals away from dangerous crossing spots to the underpasses. State Road 29, another treacherous crossing for panthers in Collier County—one of the two fastest-growing counties in Florida—doesn’t have adequate fencing between its six wildlife crossings, and panther mortalities are too common.

One of the biggest deterrents to creating crossings is the cost. Each one sports a hefty $4-million-dollar price tag, mostly because a separate, parallel road must be built to accommodate traffic until the new crossing is finished. The good news is that thanks to a request for funding from Defenders of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Department of Transportation agreed to spend $650,000 to study the feasibility of constructing one at Turner River Bridge. The not-so-good news is that, if approved, installation would still be many years—and probably many panther deaths—away. Another problem is that some people are opposed to the building of the crossing, for reasons including recreational access, aesthetics and tribal cultural issues.

“The death of this young panther is deeply upsetting because it could have been avoided,” says Elizabeth Fleming, Defenders’ Florida representative. “She was a breeding-age female, a critically important individual in the very small population. This tragedy underscores the urgent need for immediate action to reduce the threats to panthers from vehicles in Big Cypress. We are urging Florida Department of Transportation and Collier County to slow traffic down on U.S. 41 with a lower legal speed limit, stepped up enforcement and installation of speed-calming structures, such as rumble strips, warning lights and additional signs.”

Back at the preserve’s headquarters a short time later, Gilmour is standing on the back of a flatbed truck’s tailgate with a scale. The female cat is out of the bag, paws tied for lifting, when they slip free and her body crumples and flops to the ground. It punctuates this graceful 61-pound cat’s decidedly ignoble ending. “She’s not lactating and she doesn’t look old enough to have nursed but she has at least once,” says panther tracker Roy McBride, pulling on a nipple. “The foot has some abrasions, probably road rash.” Otherwise there are no marks. Often they die of stress or blunt trauma.

Highway collisions, however deadly, still remain only a symptom of the panther’s principal predicament: loss of habitat. “Cattle ranches can be a decent environment for panthers,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Larry Richardson, who is touring me around the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which abuts the northwestern boundary of Big Cypress. And south Florida still has plenty of agricultural land. “But the problem occurs when dad dies and leaves the ranch to the kids,” he says. “They can’t afford the inheritance tax. Or they just have different ideas, and the land is parceled off for box stores, golf courses and subdivisions. To support places like that you need a fire station, a grocery store, a pharmacy. It grows like a cancer, out and out and out.”

An unprecedented land-protection program in the works could connect 2.5 million acres of public and private land in southwest Florida. Defenders of Wildlife and several other conservation organizations are negotiating with eight landowners whose lands are immediately north of the refuge and the national preserve. If achieved, it would be a noteworthy accomplishment and could provide protected territory for additional cats.

But that is still not enough to recover the species completely, say biologists. “We can maintain panthers in south Florida for a long time because of all the public lands,” says Mark Lotz, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist who is bouncing alongside us on a swamp buggy this breezeless spring day. “We have the techniques and know-how to support 100 panthers here, but there’s not another piece like this in the rest of the state so it’s almost like managing a zoo population.”

Ultimately, he says, recovery as defined by the federal plan—two additional, sustainable, breeding populations of at least 240 panthers each—will not happen without a shift in public attitudes and a push from the federal government.

Biologists think a section along the panhandle to the north could support panthers. But no wild lands connect it to south Florida, making it nearly impossible for venturesome males to reach it alive. There are also large tracts of land in Arkansas, perhaps Georgia and maybe Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, but without any connecting wildlife corridors to get there, panthers would have to be reintroduced—as was done for wolves relocated from Canada into the northern Rocky Mountains in the mid 1990s. The decision to do this for the panther has never been made,” says Richardson. “And the push would have to come from the very top, perhaps from the Interior Secretary, and with extensive public input.”

That’s because, as with wolves in the Rockies, people are resistant to having predators in their backyard—even though, just like wolves in the Rockies, there has never been a documented panther attack on people in Florida. “Prior to the 1900s, there were some accounts in newspaper clippings,” says Richardson. “But it’s all hearsay: ‘Farmer Brown’s cousin says his next door neighbor was chased by a panther.’”

“People don’t understand the concept that it’s them moving into panther habitat, not the other way around,” adds Lotz. “Yes, we need to recognize there is a danger, but in reality people kill more people—and no one freaks out when a person buys a house next door.” Global warming may add another dire element to the panther’s future survival. “Sea level rise may not affect the refuge but if the coastal zone is flooded and everyone moves their condos next to I-75, that’s the end of panther habitat,” says Richardson.

We spend much of the day looking for panther tracks and scrapes—piles of soil, leaves or pine needles with urine or feces on top that the cats scrape together with their hind paws. We find one that’s a few days old and hasn’t been “refreshed” recently. But the tracks we see nearby look new. Lotz pulls out the radio-tracking device and listens for cat number 113. This is her territory and she has puzzled him lately by uncharacteristically hanging around the same place. “Anytime a cat restricts its movements, it makes us go, ‘Oh!’” he says. “I don’t think she’s denning, but she keeps returning to the same area.”

Richardson told me at the onset of our ride that it’d be a near-miracle to spot one today. “Panthers are the epitome of stealth,” he says. “When you see one it’s an accident. They’ve got to be incoherent for a moment in time and you have to be unbelievably coherent.” While Lotz stays behind, Richardson suggests we head off for a quick glimpse of Ave Maria, a brand-new Catholic university just north of the refuge. The town that accompanies it, complete with cathedral and a hodgepodge of businesses, sucked up 4,995 acres of farmland smack dab in the middle of panther territory. A two-lane highway will soon become four lanes to accommodate the influx of people. The formerly flat land has been made into hills so residents can cross a “quaint” bridge. Understandably, the community is the poster child for those who believe once panther habitat is lost, it’s lost forever.

Later that day, the phone rings. It’s Lotz: “I have good news and bad news,” he says. “The good news is I figured out what 113 is up to. The bad news is you weren’t there to see it.” Turns out the cat was in estrus. “She walked right next to our buggy tracks from this morning,” he says. “Right past me through the pines, yowling away, calling for a mate. I’ve never seen that before. She didn’t even notice me.”

Apparently, against all odds, there are rare moments when you can find a big, stealthy cat rendered incoherent. With any luck, these tenacious tawny cats will surpass the even greater odds stacked against their future. “After all,” says Richardson, “in setting aside lands to save them, we’re saving ourselves as well. I can’t lose hope in Florida panthers or I will lose hope about too many other things.”

While reporting on this story, Senior Editor Heidi Ridgley had hoped to see a big cat roaming in the wild, but with no luck she went back to the city and the little domestic tabby cat that sleeps on her bed.

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