Becoming roadkill is the No. 1 cause of death to our endangered Florida panthers.
In the past three years, 66 panthers have died in vehicle collisions. With a panther population somewhere between 120 to 230, it’s a substantial number. This year, estimates of the panther population may dip even lower than that.
Wildlife are not the only victims. Florida ranks ninth in the nation in human deaths caused by wildlife-vehicle collisions. The solution: specially designed overpasses or underpasses that allow wildlife to cross roads without interacting with motorists. Studies show that wildlife crossings are the most effective way to mitigate wildlife-vehicle collisions.
Florida has approximately 200 wildlife crossings across the state. The Florida Department of Transportation’s ESRI map shows bridges that wildlife are currently using to cross state roadways. Some were designed specifically for wildlife, while others are simply places where wildlife crossings have been documented.
Many contain additional features like fencing used to direct animals to the crossing. Research shows that together these features reduce vehicle-animal collisions by 97%. Sometimes, the crossing is a bridge over the roadway or a culvert built to create an underpass; sometimes it’s a shelf that’s built along a waterway underneath. Either way, it’s a connection for wildlife to move safely from one side of the road to the other.
The majority of panther deaths happen in Lee, Hendry and Collier counties. These fall in FDOT’s District 1. Right now, there are nine fully funded projects in District 1 that include wildlife protection features like fencing and some wildlife crossings. FDOT is also planning 14 more projects that include wildlife crossing features, but they are not currently funded for construction.
The state Department of Transportation has applied for a federal grant that is a part of a pilot program created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The Wildlife Crossings Pilot Project will provide $350 million in grants over five years to states and communities specifically to build these structures. The grant is competitive; currently FDOT has applied for about $7.4 million to cover most of the $9 million cost to put in a large concrete culvert underneath U.S. 27 in Highlands County.
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Based on the effectiveness of wildlife crossings and the demonstrated need for them, increased funding at both the state and federal levels could spare the lives of animals and humans, and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in damage and cleanup. More wildlife crossings mean lower risk to our unique wildlife and drivers.
Mia McCormick is an advocate with Environment Florida. This opinion piece was distributed by The Invading Sea website (www.theinvadingsea.com).