By Eric Staats
NAPLES — The death of a Florida panther early Thursday morning on Interstate 75 — the 14th panther roadkill in 2009 — is prompting concern from state wildlife officials.
Drivers should be aware that panthers are not always struck in posted panther speed zones and should be on the lookout for the endangered cats, especially at sundown, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statement issued Friday.
The number of Florida panther has increased in the past 20 years, from an estimated 30 animals to more than 100 today.
“In spite of the modest increase in numbers, every cat remains important to the survival of the species in the wild,” Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land said in the statement.
The number of panthers killed in collisions with vehicles has increased since 2000, ranging between six and 15 per year. The roadkill record of 15 panther deaths was set in 2007.
Besides the 14 roadkills in 2009, seven other wild panthers have been found dead this year, according to the state tally.
They include three panthers killed in fights with other panthers, two killed by unknown causes, one found shot to death in Hendry County and one death under investigation.
In Thursday’s collision near the Collier-Broward county line, the driver saw the panther at the last minute but was traveling too fast to avoid hitting the cat, the Conservation Commission reported.
The male panther did not have a radio-tracking collar and was struck sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., Land reported.
The Conservation Commission, along with county sheriff’s deputies and Florida Highway Patrol officers, enforce 45 mph night-time panther speed zones in Lee and Collier counties.
Collier’s speed zones are located on State Road 29 and on U.S. 41 East, including a new zone posted last year through Collier-Seminole State Park.
In Lee County, panther speed zones are on Corkscrew Road, Daniels Road extension and Alico Road.
Panther speed zone violations can carry fines exceeding $200 for a first offense.
A violation of more than 29 mph over the speed limit requires a court appearance.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/