The government of Florida announced that it has allotted more than $5 million for the construction of a fence that will help keep panthers and other animals from reaching a section of the Interstate 75 highway known as Alligator Alley.
According to the state's transportation department, the building project involves erecting a 10-foot fence designed to cover 18 miles of the area as well as working on three individual underpasses for animals located east of the Naples toll both.
Officials from the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) have long advocated for the construction of panther fencing along Alligator Alley, which connects the cities of Naples and Miami.
Animal experts estimate that around 14 panthers have already been killed on the highway since 2004. Road accidents are considered to be the leading cause of panther deaths in the region.
"This is a very big deal in the campaign to make highways safer for panthers and humans," Nancy Payton, a representative of the FWF, said.
Dan Smith, a transportation ecologist hired by the Florida Wildlife Federation, proposed that the already existing 10-foot fence along the Faka-Union Canal be extended for about 3.5 miles to cover two bridges that could help funnel the animals under the highway, or seven miles to include a majority of the portions of the road identified as roadkill spots.
The transportation department, however, agreed to address the entire nine miles of roadkill spots in its construction project instead.
The DOT's plan includes placing riprap of rocks under bridges located near the Miller and Faka-Union canals to create a path for panthers and other animals to move between nature lands in North Belle Meade in the north of the highway and the Picayune Strand State Forest in the south.
While Smith also recommended for culverts along the fenced portion of Alligator Alley to be converted into wildlife underpasses, the DOT's construction project do not include the creation of new underpasses.
This move is a cause for concern for Darrell Land, leader of the panther team of the Conservation Commission. He said that constructing too many impediments to the movement of panthers and other wide-ranging animals could fragment their habitats.
"They're kind of boxed in there," he pointed out.
Land, however, said that reducing the high rates of panther roadkill is more important than his concerns.
Roadkill remains one of the primary threats to the population of panthers in Southwest Florida following the 1995 restoration project that helped introduce Texas cougars to the local population.