Officials get trapped panther back into the wild

Officials get trapped panther back into the wild




Sunday, November 11, 2007


A wayward panther that got caught between Corkscrew Road and a fence forced local officials to hone their cat herding skills.


Using their bodies to funnel the cat through a small hole in the fence, scientists and officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were able to drive the panther back to the wild unharmed.


“It worked as planned,” said Mark Lotz, a biologist for FWC “I don’t know how much is luck or whatever, but it turned out well.”


Not bad, considering the situation could have resulted in the third panther to get struck and killed by a vehicle on the deadly stretch of road since August 2006.


Drivers on Corkscrew Road were the first to see the panther running up and down along the fence line, frantically searching for a way through.


The fence is in place to keep panthers off the road, but in this case it acted more like a trap.


Lee County officials are extending the fence on the north and south sides of the road in order to help funnel more of the endangered animals through an underpass that serves as a panther crossing.


But crews could only finish extending the fence on the south side because flooded wetlands on the north side temporarily halted their progress.


That created a problem for the female panther that was heading across Corkscrew Road from the north and ran into the completed fence on the south.


“With traffic running, it probably got pretty frightened and found its way into a culvert,” said Dave Onorato, a panther biologist for FWC.


The 32-inch high culvert that runs under the road is where Lotz found the panther when he arrived.


Officers cut a hole in the fence, hoping the panther would escape but it didn’t work.


Lotz decided to intervene.


He positioned three people perpendicular to the fence to the left of the hole and three people on the right.


Once everyone was in position, Lotz sent someone into the opposite side of the culvert to flush the panther out.


“He did it really slow so the panther wouldn’t get spooked and run out,” Lotz said. “She came to the entrance and stood there a minute and looked around. She sized up the situation, saw the hole and just made her way right to it.”


With this week’s completion of the fence extension on the north side of Corkscrew Road, county officials hope the situation is never repeated, said Betsie Hiatt, environmental manager for Lee County Department of Transportation.


But since the area is so popular with panthers, the county will continue to work with the FWC to make sure the fence is working properly.


“If we need to, we’ll make some more modifications,” Hiatt said.


Scientists believe the corridor is so popular with panthers and other wildlife because it is an island of habitat surrounded by development.


When biologists returned the day after the panther was rescued they found both male and female panther tracks in the area.


“One of our objectives this year is to spend some time up there and collar some animals and see how they are using that isolated habitat,” Onorato said. “It’s an area of conservation concern. The habitat is shrinking but panthers are still using it.”


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