Living and Dying on State Road 29-Part II-The Florida Panther
The tide of development continues to lap at the shore of wilderness. There are surges of construction that erode the natural landscape, recede and swell again. As cypress, pine and palm fall to the waves of encroaching bulldozers, buildings rise and along with them warning signs. Watch your speed. Go slow. Wildlife may be present. Did you just hit something?
Panther Crossing signs along Treeline Avenue in Fort Myers and County Road 951 in Naples have disappeared one by one, replaced by speed limit signs. Forests replaced by strip malls.
A sign along State Road 29 in the Western Everglades suggests that only 30 of the Endangered Florida Panthers (Puma concolor) remain in the wild. The actual number is closer to 100 thanks to the efforts of state and federal biologists who introduced eight female Texas Cougars (Puma concolor) to South Florida in 1995. Despite a different common name, the cats belong to the same species and are separated only by the Gulf of Mexico. In fact the cats go by Mountain Lion and Puma in other regions of North and South America. Here in Florida, the last remaining breeding populations east of the Mississippi River struggle to hang on as the relentless waves of humanity lap against their territorial shores.
While the introduction of more genetically fit individuals into the Panther population bolstered genetic diversity in the Florida cats, the problem still remains, Panthers need vast stretches of undisturbed habitat. Males require an estimated 150 square miles and do not tolerate other male encroachment. Biologists believed that enough habitat remained in South Florida to accommodate up to 250 of the big cats.
Unfortunately we lose 10% of the Florida Panther population every year as roads seep like rivulets into cat country. State Road 29 has long been the biggest offender. Year after year vehicle accidents claim the lives of panthers crossing that road. Today, fencing and wildlife crossings help funnel them from one side to another, but where there are no crossings, accidents persist.
Humans can only be fenced out for so long.