Granting Safe Passage to Panthers

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New roadside detectors in Florida help the big cats get to the other side

by Caitlin Leutwiler

The rain is pouring down in the Sunshine State, and visibility along U.S. Highway 41 is severely reduced. Yet cars whiz down this section of highway known as the Tamiami Trail as if the road beneath were dry and there weren’t another living soul for miles. They speed along despite the fact that as soon as asphalt meets grass, the area becomes lush with the almost jungle-like vegetation of Big Cypress National Preserve.

Big Cypress teems with wildlife and is a refuge for the critically endangered Florida panther. But the roads here make it a dangerous place for the big cats, with vehicle collisions one of the leading causes of death. In 2009, 17 panthers—a record high—were killed while crossing roads, and in 2010, 16 panthers met a similar fate. For a species whose population is estimated at just 100 to 160 animals, the loss of a single cat is serious.

To make the state's roads safer and keep this big cat on the path to recovery, the Florida Department of Transportation in January installed a roadside animal detection system (RADS) along 1.3 miles of a particularly deadly stretch of U.S. 41 near the Turner River bridge in Big Cypress. At least seven panthers have perished in less than eight years on this road, the latest on Feb. 6.

The system uses solar-powered sensors to detect when large animals, such as panthers, are close to the road. The system then alerts drivers to slow down with bright, flashing LED lights on six roadside warning signs.

Such “bells and whistles” may be just the thing to raise awareness, which is the first and most important step to decreasing panther deaths, says Elizabeth Fleming, Defenders’ Florida representative. “Reminding drivers to slow down because they’re not alone on the road may make the difference between a safe ride and a deadly accident,” says Fleming. “The RADS system is a promising step toward making one of Florida’s most scenic roads safe as well.”

A few western states already use the system primarily to detect larger mammals such as elk, but this is the first time it’s being used as a way to save panthers. If it proves effective here, it may be put to use in other parts of the state.&

Defenders partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get grant-funding for the RADS installation, which is just one of several Defenders’ projects to make roads safer throughout Florida. In December, a nighttime slower speed zone was established in another location documented as dangerous—a five-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of County Road 832 called Keri Road that cuts through Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. Defenders created and led the taskforce that improved safe passage.

“Being alert on the road is a critical step to decreasing the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions.” says Fleming. “We are very hopeful that the new road detection system will raise awareness about the need to drive carefully, slow down and watch out for wildlife.”

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