A major toll road project would worsen an already bad situation for endangered Florida panthers, according to a report released Tuesday by The Nature Conservancy in Florida, which reasserts environmentalists' opposition to the highway expansion.
The road in question would connect Polk and Collier counties, through the narrow range of one of the state’s signature, long-struggling species. Florida is home to between 120 and 230 panthers today, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Calling the road an “existential threat” to panthers, Temperince Morgan, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida, said in a statement Tuesday: “We continue to provide science-based input to the toll road task force, in an effort to identify the potential catastrophic impacts to nature that this road could have.”
Previously, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist wrote that the project could be a “disaster” for panthers.
Roads are a known threat to the species. At least 18 big cats have been found dead this year, state data show, all but three hit by cars. Twenty-three of 27 panther deaths recorded last year involved traffic.
The state Department of Transportation has said it aims to reduce risk to panthers with wildlife crossings and fencing to steer the animals safely across a roadway. Beth Frady, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted that the toll road project is still in an early, “pre-planning” stage.
“FDOT is dedicated to preserving the quality of Florida’s most precious environmental and historical resources,” she wrote in an email. “At every juncture of the proposed M-CORES program, the department has been very clear that protection of the Florida panther is paramount.”
Planners have not identified the exact route the road would take, but The Nature Conservancy report argues that several possible locations are all problematic. The organization commissioned the analysis from a former state ecologist, Randy Kautz. It suggests a task force reviewing the project should be able to recommend that the road not be built at all.
“Wildlife crossings certainly are a tool for reducing the impact of roads, but the bigger loss we think would be from loss of habitat,” said Janet Bowman, senior policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “Wildlife crossings don’t prevent that.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have pushed the proposal, say the expansion will spur development. Kautz’s analysis looks at population growth estimates that show the state having as many as 33.7 million people by 2070, compared to 21.5 million today. Some of those new residents, the report suggests, will live in new neighborhoods where panthers might expand if their population improves. Further, the study shows, sea level rise might claim some land at the edges of their range today.
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Though some development is inevitable, Bowman said, she believes the road would accelerate building, especially in inland counties like Glades and Hendry.
Panthers once lived from South Carolina to Arkansas, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are now largely limited to the bottom of the Florida peninsula, breeding south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee.