By Lucas Seiler
The state will spend $5.4 million to prevent the Florida panther from becoming roadkill on what's become the deadliest stretch of highway for the animal on Alligator Alley.
Fourteen panthers have been killed along the nine-mile stretch from the Naples toll booth to the Faku-Union Canal in the last decade, prompting the decision to add six more feet -- with barbed wire trim -- to a four-foot barrier fence.
The new fence will match the existing fence already in place across Broward County.
"It is way overdue," said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation, which helped convince the state Department of Transportation to make the change. "We certainly understood that FDOT was going to react positively, but to do the entire nine miles and enhance the passage into the bridges was over the moon for us."
Crews will reset rocks under the canal bridge to create paths for panthers to avoid collisions with truck drivers.
"I don't want them to get in the road," said driver Lopez Alvarez. "Bending my fender, (or causing me) to skid and then cause an accident."
The fence project is the latest and most expensive to enhance a rebounding panther population and ensure the state can handle the larger numbers. Engineers will also explore the idea of converting unused culverts into wildlife underpasses, so the panthers don't attempt to jump fences.
Twenty-four panthers have been killed by vehicle strikes across the state in 2015.
"Anytime time you have an animal on the road it's very dangerous," said Dan Hohenstein. "Not only for the driver but, of course, the possibility you can kill an animal, too."