Caloosa Belle

Floridians advised to watch out for panthers

Courtesy photo/Heather Green of www.heathergreenphoto.com

While two new litters of three Florida panther kittens each have been reported so far in 2018, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), mortality among the endangered species also grew, with three deaths during the past two months pushing the toll to 18 for the year.

The latest casualties were discovered at the southern end of their range. A 4-year-old male found July 21 on Stewart Boulevard in Collier County, near the Picayune Strand State Forest, was the most recent; and a younger male’s carcass was discovered June 25 on State Road 29 a couple of miles south of County Road 858 in Collier. Both were struck fatally by vehicles. The other death was of a 9-month-old male panther struck on CR 833, just north of CR 832 in Hendry County, and found June 20.

A new litter, just 26 days old, was discovered on a private ranch and recorded by the FWC on June 16, two males and a female born to a mama panther wearing tag FP246. The other consisted of two females and one male born to tagged panther FP220 in the Big Cypress National Preserve, Turner River Unit, and recorded March 20.

During the past two months, there have also been four panther depredations of livestock and pets reported, all in Golden Gate Estates inside Collier County. The animals killed were a calf, a cat, a goat and a miniature donkey.

Scientists from the FWC along with wildlife advocacy organizations have been working this year to publicize a program that can help people keep their outdoor pets and livestock safe from the predator. Another part of these people’s job of protecting the endangered species and keeping human neighbors, children, pets and livestock safe from them in their Southwest and South Central Florida rangelands is advising how motorists can avoid harming Florida panthers in roadway encounters.

Sixteen of the 18 panther deaths this year were caused by vehicle collisions, two from unknown causes. One mortality, in May, occurred along a part of Alligator Alley that had been fenced to keep panthers off the road, but in a spot where the fencing was breached by Hurricane Irma.

Bids for replacing that fence had been received by the state only the day before that panther fatality in May. Unfortunately, according to an FWC research scientist, neither the Federal Highway Administration nor Florida Department of Transportation considers that type of repair to be an emergency.

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said at the time that “we have been requesting that FDOT make repairing damaged fencing a priority,” but that did not happen soon enough. With more areas of downed fencing still needing replacement, state authorities are asking motorists to be on heightened alert in panther crossing areas (which are clearly marked by cautionary yellow FDOT signs).

The FDOT and FWC request that drivers exercise additional caution while driving in areas of Southwest Florida that are panther habitat, especially near Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, and always use their headlights beginning at dusk and continuing until sunup.

Motorists and truckers also are asked to report injured or dead panthers to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).

The panther, Florida’s official state animal, has been listed as a federally endangered species since 1967. As the state gains more human inhabitants, suitable habitat for panthers shrinks. Florida panthers normally live in remote, undeveloped areas. But while both the number of panthers and the number of people living and recreating in Florida are growing, so also are the chances of an encounter with a panther.

Encounters with Florida panthers are relatively rare but do occur, particularly in rural parts of Southwest Florida. If you live, work or play in panther habitat, there are things you can do to enhance your safety and that of your friends, family and animals.

If you encounter a Florida panther:
• Keep children within sight and close to you.
• Give the panther space. Most Florida panthers will avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
• Do not run. Stand and face the animal. Make eye contact.
• Avoid crouching or bending over. Squatting or bending over makes you look smaller, resembling a prey-sized animal.
• Make yourself appear larger. Open your jacket, raise your arms, throw stones, branches, etc. without turning away.
• If attacked, fight back with whatever is at hand (without turning your back).

For more information, read the FWC’s flier on Panther Safety Tips. Anyone who feels threatened by a panther, or who has lost pets or livestock to a panther, is requested to call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), or #FWC and *FWC on a cellphone.

There are also things residents can do to make their yard less attractive to panthers. Individual circumstances vary, but options to consider include:
• A secure enclosure or electric fence about 2 feet high around animal pens.
• Motion-activated lighting (a light that is always on may help you to see what’s happening but will not deter a panther).
• Clear or mow vegetation that may provide concealment for panthers.
• Do not feed wildlife because panthers may be attracted to areas where prey animals congregate.
• Construct a secure pen for pets and livestock.

The FWC offers further tips on its website, along with detailed instructions about how to build panther-safe outdoor enclosures for outdoor pets or livestock. Help is available also from Defenders of Wildlife, which may assist farmers or private livestock owners in financing construction of outdoor pens.

To learn more, go to their website at www.defenders.org.