Three Florida panthers killed by cars on three consecutive days last weekend have pushed the total of road deaths for the state animal to the point where it is on pace to top last year's record of 17.
So far this year, eight have been run down. This time last year, only seven had been hit.
The three panthers run over last weekend were all killed on U.S. 41 in Collier County — a road that has no special underpasses for wildlife, unlike other major highways through panther habitat in South Florida, even though it passes through several state and national parks.
State transportation officials had planned to put in a special wildlife crossing on U.S. 41 to help panthers avoid cars on that stretch, but ran into opposition from hunters and backed off.
The overall estimated cost of building the underpass would have been $8 million. Construction would include 2 miles of fencing to make sure the panthers used the underpass instead of crossing the pavement.
At public hearings on the plan in the fall, hunters and anglers who drive off-road vehicles to their wilderness camps via U.S. 41 objected to the fences because they would block easy access to the Big Cypress National Preserve.
"That was set aside not only for panther protection but also for public access," said Brian McMahon of the Everglades Conservation and Sportsmen's Club.
The deadliest highway in the state for panthers has long been State Road 29, but it now has six underpasses for panthers. As a result, McMahon said, "that's pretty much been all fenced off, so access has become a pretty sore subject" for hunters.
Because of the objections from hunters and anglers, "we decided not to pursue a wildlife crossing in this area," said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Debbie Tower.
Instead, the department may put out road signs that tell drivers their speed, she said. It's also planning to install Roadside Animal Detection Systems, or RADS, along the highway. These set off warnings to slow down when a large animal such as a panther or bear gets close to the road.
But neither the underpass nor the RADS system has been slated for installation along the sections of U.S. 41 where the three panthers were killed last weekend, said Elizabeth Fleming of the Defenders of Wildlife Florida office in St. Petersburg.
The large number of panthers being hit shows how their remaining habitat has been fragmented, and how they're being pushed to move around despite hazards such as traffic, she said. Experts believe there are about 100 Florida panthers in the wild.
The weekend of panther deaths began Friday, when a 4-year-old male was found run over on a stretch of U.S. 41 that cuts through Big Cypress National Preserve. On Saturday, a 5-year-old female was killed on U.S. 41 about a half-mile east of San Marco Road. On Sunday morning, an 8-month-old male kitten was run over on U.S. 41 near Manatee Road.
The female killed this weekend had two 8-week-old kittens.
"For two days, we searched for them, two days straight," said Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But finding the kittens was like "finding a needle in a moving haystack," he said.
What's their chance of survival without their mother?
"Zero," he said. "That litter is failed."
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or email@example.com.