Woodland stream.

Environmental group says state not doing enough to save panthers

The National Wildlife Federation is pretty happy with Lee and Collier county leaders these days.

With the Florida Department of Transportation, not so much.

Recent panther deaths on both sides of the county line have made 2007 the worst year ever for the endangered big cat. When three panthers died during the last week of June, it drove the yearly total of the big cats killed by vehicles to 14, surpassing last year’s record mark of 11.

The National Wildlife Federation, with its affiliate Florida Wildlife Federation, recently dashed off letters to Lee County government, DOT and Gov. Charlie Crist asking for specific improvements they say will provide better protection.

Lee County officials already have tackled some of the improvements, moving toward extending fencing along Corkscrew Road east of Alico Road.

“That’s the kind of response we were looking for,” said Nancy Payton, the Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Payton said she was pleased to see Collier officials moving toward an agreement with federal and state wildlife officials nailing down necessary panther crossing sites and even talking about a funding source.

“Collier County, we have to give kudos,” she said.
But she sent the same letter to the state that she sent to Lee County, Payton said. Only the response was different.

“We got a very unsatisfactory response from FDOT,” she said.

These underpasses on Highway 29 north of Interstate 75 are for endangered Florida panthers to avoid the busy highway.

That response talked about feasibility studies and pointed a finger at development, not roads, as leading to increased panther deaths. Specifically the state and national federations want more crossings on U.S. 41 east of the Turner River Bridge and on State Road 29 near Jerome.

“They talk about a feasibility study,” Payton said. “We say where there’s a will, there’s a way. I think a feasibility study is a waste of a half-million dollars.”

Maybe so, but DOT spokeswoman Debbie Tower said the study is part of the process the state must follow. Besides, she said, it’s been a long time since the state has built any new roads.

“Panther habitat is being lost, but it’s not as a result of anything FDOT is doing,” she said. “We haven’t built any new roads in years.”

When previously unbuilt areas are developed, it drives animals, including panthers, into new areas, Tower said.

In addition to wanting new crossings, the two federations have ideas where new roads should be built — and where they should not.

In Lee County, the groups repeated a call to adopt the westernmost route for the north-south 951 extension, a choice that would see the new road hug I-75 instead of running a mile farther east.

The eastern route, Payton said, would slice through panther habitat and promote development east of the interstate. The groups also asked Lee commissioners to oppose the proposed Coconut Road interchange.

Don DeBerry, the Lee County engineer in charge of the 951 project, said neither of the latter recommendations is new. Both have been echoed, at least preliminarily, by federal agencies.

“We’ve heard those comments before,” he said.
Payton said a letter also went to Crist urging him to take the lead on panther protection.

“The sad fact is that most of these injuries and deaths are preventable through sound transportation planning,” she said.



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