Construction of a new wildlife underpass, which will allow animals to safely walk under a busy highway without being hit by cars, has begun in southeastern Florida. So far in 2010, 16 wild panthers have been killed due to collisions with vehicles in Florida. (The total panther population in the wild there is about 100-120.) In the past 12 years, 10 panthers have died trying to cross the stretch of road where the new underpass is being built, located east of Immokalee. Wild panthers are on the verge of extinction in Florida due to traffic mortalities, and loss of habitat.
“It is critical to provide for safe passage of panthers across dangerous roads. We are working to get additional wildlife crossings installed – in addition to conserving quality habitat – in hopes of increasing this unique animal’s chance of survival,” said Laurie McDonald, a Defenders of Wildlife program director in the state. (Source: DefendersofWildlife)
In fact their population at one point was down to about 15, and inbreeding had already started causing birth defects like kinked tails, males with one testicle, smaller size, immune system problems, and bone problems. Wild panthers from Texas had to be introduced so the gene pool would be broadened and those problems reduced in the next generations. So far the new panthers in Florida are healthier physically, but they still face the same threats to their existence.
Wildlife underpasses can help reduce mortality in panthers so they can live normal lifespans and reproduce at rates which maintain and even grow their population. For example, if a mother panther is killed in a vehicle accident and has cubs, the cubs also die because they can’t feed or protect themselves. So every wild panther in Florida is a factor in the whole group’s survival. Wildlife underpasses also employ fences next to roads to block wildlife from crossing over the surface where cars are moving, and guide them sort of like a funnel to the underpass where they can cross safely. The new underpass project won’t save all the panthers in the area, but is a step in the right direction. It is likely to be successful, and could provide an example for inspiring construction of additional underpasses to protect wild animals.
Over one million dollars was alloted for the project as part of a commercial development plan near Interstate 75 where there are thousands of cars passing each day. The commercial development includes two hotels, a British Petroleum gas station, a car wash, warehouse space, and possibly a bank branch. Money for the conservation portion of the plan was required by law, under the Endangered Species Act to try to balance commercial development and protection of wildlife.
This land is in the Naples-Marco Island area which has a population of 315,000 and a tiny number of wild panthers. Over one billion dollars each year is generated by tourism in the area where the warm weather, white sand beaches, golf, fishing, shopping and tennis draw a very large seasonal influx of visitors. Nine hotels and resorts there have also been certified as green lodgings, and visiting nature parks is part of the draw. Panthers are a part of the local ecology, and can contribute to tourism also, but only if they are allowed to survive.
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