Recognizing shadows in the dark is hard at best, but if they trigger a motion detector, it just might be possible to glimpse them. That’s the thinking behind Florida officials’ new plan to help stop highly endangered Florida panthers from becoming road kill.
A creature once thought destined to follow the passenger pigeon into extinction, the panther has rebounded from only about 20 wild individuals in the 1970s to perhaps 100 today. But the path to a self-sustaining population is treacherous because of inbreeding, habitat loss, and highways that slice through their territories. By mid-summer vehicles had killed 11 of the tawny cats—about 10 percent of the known population.
The feline ghosts can stretch seven feet from tail tip to nose and cover 20 miles a day in search of white-tailed deer, wild hogs, and small game. Some of those miles, unfortunately, put them on a collision course with cars and trucks. A $675,000 grant secured by Defenders of Wildlife will be committed this fall to an “animal detection system” that will alert motorists to cats on the move.
Depending on which system officials opt for, a roadside warning sign will flash when a panther—or any large mammal—crosses an infrared or laser beam, or when a sensor detects body heat and movement.
Such technology has been used in Arizona, Wyoming, Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to warn drivers of approaching elk and deer. In some cases, collisions have dropped 97 percent, says Marcel Huijser, a Montana State University research ecologist who helps test such systems. While panthers present a more ground-hugging target than deer, Huijser doesn’t think that will be a problem.
The system selected will be installed near the junction of Turner River Road and U.S. 41 in southwestern Big Cypress National Preserve, which offers top-notch panther habitat. Placing it here, where roughly 2,700 vehicles a day zoom by, could significantly reduce road-kill mortality.
“Florida panther conservation and recovery is arguably among the most challenging species conservation questions in the country,” says Paul Souza, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida Ecological Services Office field supervisor. “It’s an extraordinarily wide-ranging animal, and this is one of our highest priorities.”