The Florida panther was designated an endangered species when the Endangered Species Act was first enacted in 1973. The population was estimated at around 30-46 adults in the 1980s. Through species recovery efforts panthers are rebounding and today the estimated adult population is between 120 – 230. The species range had been limited to SW Florida, mostly occurring in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and in surrounding state forests and ranch lands south of the Caloosahatchee River. The species recovery strategy includes the creation of three separate sustainable populations. The first natural step in realizing this goal occurred in 2016 when the first breeding-age female in more than 40 years was recorded north of the Caloosahatchee River. Exemplifying natural range expansion, it creates an opportunity to establish a separate population in Central Florida and perhaps beyond.
Panther-vehicle collisions (PVC) are the leading known cause of mortality of this endangered species. The objective of this study was to predict locations in Central Florida where panther-road conflicts are most likely to occur in the absence of substantive PVCs in this region. We used ArcGIS cost path and corridor analytical tools on land cover and roads data to identify potential movement paths of Florida panthers and approximate road locations where crossings are likely to occur. Land cover preferences of panthers, based on GPS telemetry data, was used in the development of the cost surface for the analysis. Potential source and destination locations for modeling panther movement were chosen from data of existing and proposed conservation lands (at least 10,000 ac) and the Florida Ecological Greenways Network. Results were validated by comparing to existing panther telemetry, limited data on panther sightings and road-kills (north of the Caloosahatchee River), and road-kill and telemetry data of black bears (as a surrogate data source in some locations). Our results included 185 potential pathways within 36 corridors connecting 23 focal conservation areas in the Central Florida study area (47,716 sq km). Along the 185 pathways, we identified potential crossing locations on 1,168 road segments (an average of 6 road crossings per pathway). We also identified 241 existing bridges that may provide opportunities for safe wildlife passage. This information is valuable to transportation agencies in planning for potential wildlife crossings to minimize PVCs as the panther range expands and individuals disperse throughout Central Florida.