NAPLES, Fla. - Needing ample roaming space and certain types of prey, the Florida panther has made Southwest Florida its home.
"Collier County really is the stronghold for that population now," Kevin Godsea, Refuge Manager for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, said.
But living so close to roads has proved deadly for the population. Fourteen of the 17 confirmed panther deaths this year have been blamed on vehicle strikes. It's a number on track to break records.
Godsea said although that number seems high, there's more to it.
"It's a double edged sword," Godsea said. "It's sad on one end, but if you look at it a little bit deeper, the population is increasing and that's important."
Biologists estimate there's between 100-160 panthers living mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River. That's a huge increase from 20 years ago, when the number declined to about 30.
Godsea credits that increase to a genetic restoration project.
"We brought eight female Texas cougars that are the closest relative to the Florida panther in. When they gave birth to 20 kittens, we pulled those eight females out of the wild and that really boosted the population," Godsea said.
Now that population is expanding into areas like Gold Gate Estates and even north of the Caloosahatchee. But that also means there's more cats crossing the roads.
"There's more people on the roads, this time especially when we get into the winter season so we tend to see more road moralities," Godsea said.
So, to keep yourself and the panthers safe, Godsea said it's extremely important to abide by the 45 MPH speed limit in all panther zones.
For more information on how to support panther research, log onto flpanthernet.com
. You can also purchase a panther license plate to donate money.