By the Florida Wildlife Federation
Humans aren’t the only creatures traveling along Interstate 4 in central Florida. Native wildlife, such as Florida panthers, are also using this throughfare. Organizations, such as the Florida Wildlife Federation, are helping protect this endangered species by building wildlife crossings.
All about Florida panthers
Image courtesy of fStop Foundation
The Florida panther is a large cat native to the southeastern United States. Due to a combination of factors, including illegal hunting, car collisions, habitat loss and disease, only an estimated 200 remain in the wild. All of which are restricted to southwest Florida.
As the largest mammalian predator in Florida, panthers are critical to maintaining the balance of energy in ecosystems. A recent study conducted by the University of Georgia found predation by Florida panthers is now the leading cause of death for white-tailed deer in southwest Florida. Without predators to keep them in check, herbivore populations tend to explode, which can result in loss of vegetation and the emergence of dangerous diseases.
Panthers are wide-ranging animals. The home range of a single panther can occupy from 70 to nearly 250 square miles. This means they live and hunt in almost every kind of terrestrial habitat in southwest Florida, from prairies to pinelands to swamps. Because panthers need a diversity of habitats to survive, effective conservation strategies include protecting large swaths of land and establishing safe corridors for wildlife to move between these protected areas.
Image courtesy of fStop Foundation
Sharing the road with Florida panthers
Naturally, roadways present a significant barrier to wildlife movement, and vehicle strikes on roads are the leading cause of mortality for the endangered Florida panther. This is why wildlife crossings play such a vital role in protecting and recovering this iconic species. The Florida Wildlife Federation works to help secure wildlife crossings in the state and advocate for additional crossings on Florida’s roads.
If you’ve ever traveled to central Florida, you’ve likely driven on 1-4, which runs from east to west. For years, the Florida Wildlife Federation provided technical expertise and advocacy to fix the deadly barrier that the interstate creates for wildlife.
In 2022, they celebrated the groundbreaking of a 61-foot-wide by eight-foot-high underpass with fencing to guide wildlife toward the passage rather than crossing I-4. This underpass will also reconnect the landscape through the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, the southern edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.
Also in 2022, nearly 8,000 acres were protected across the state with an emphasis on panther conservation.
When we protect different habitats for panthers and create highway crossing structures to prevent collisions with cars, we also conserve other species that share these habitats with panthers. Florida panthers are considered an umbrella species. By protecting them, we can indirectly protect entire ecosystems.
What to do if you encounter a Florida panther
If you see a live Florida panther in the wild, be sure to maintain a safe distance. There haven’t been any verified attacks on humans by panthers in modern times, but they are a large predator that must be respected. In truth, panthers are probably more afraid of you than you are of them.
Next, if you have a phone or camera available — snap a picture. Now is the time to revel in your sheer luck at catching a glimpse of these secretive creatures!
Visit App.MyFWC.com/hsc/panthersightings to report your sighting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Be sure to document your location as precisely as possible to help biologists better understand the current distribution of panthers.
Unfortunately, you’re more likely to see a dead panther in the wild than a live one. Even if you see what appears to be a dead panther, you should keep your distance, snap a photo if possible and report your encounter to Florida Conservation Commission.
To learn more or support the Florida Wildlife Federation’s work to reduce vehicle collisions and to promote habitat conservation and landscape connectivity for this iconic species, visit FloridaWildlifeFederation.org.
For even more about the Florida panther, watch the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild episode, “Crossing Cougar Country,” where Host Peter Gros shows viewers wildlife crossings in action.