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With fewer than 250 grown Florida panthers in SWFL, Save the Florida Panther Day draws awareness

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Collier County designated March 18 as Save the Florida Panther Day to bring more awareness to the endangered species.

Meredith Budd, Vice President of the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge accepted the designation of the day at the Collier County Board of Commissioners meeting on March 14.

To celebrate Save the Panther Day, the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge is hosting an open house at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

The event will be on Saturday, March 18 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be guided hikes, swamp buggy rides and other educational opportunities for people of all ages.

“Come out to the refuge. Spend time in the core of Panther habitat and help us celebrate,” Budd said.

Save the Florida Panther Day is recognized by the state of Florida in theFlorida statutes.

“Going to the Collier County Commission and having the Collier County Commission recognize Save the Florida Panther Day is really significant, because Collier County is the heart of panther habitat,” Budd told WGCU Public Media.

According to theFlorida Fish and Wildlife Commission, female panthers have only been documented in South Florida. This is where all breeding for the species happens.

Budd said Save the Florida Panther Day brings stakeholders to the table to protect the species.

Collier County has a variety of recreational opportunities, including the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, the 10,000 islands, The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and the Picayune Strand State Forest

Budd said it's important to recognize recreational space in Collier County since the locations are some of the few places where the Florida panthers live and prosper.

“These ecosystems are where our panthers thrive. By protecting these lands, we are, in effect, helping to protect the panther and helping to recover the species,” Budd said.

Property and road development is on the rise as hundreds of people move to Florida each day. Budd said it’s important to know what areas are the most important to preserve for wildlife habitat.

“When you look at areas like Eastern Collier County, which is the heart of panther habitat, how can we protect those areas and direct development into areas of lesser environmental value,” Budd said. “So that we have higher density and a smaller footprint on an area that is less important for wildlife or that may be already impacted and not a pristine habitat.”

Panther habitats require a wide expanse of wilderness. They share their space with myriad other animals, including white-tailed deer, tufted titmice, frogs and wood storks.

The Florida panther is considered an umbrella species, Budd said. When the panther is protected, the other species sharing its habitat are also protected.

“[The Florida panther] is a really important species to focus on and to really understand the significance of saving this species, because it has a trickle down effect. When you protect the panther, you're protecting so many other plants and animals,” Budd said.

She mentioned that so many people move to Southwest Florida because it’s a beautiful place to live. The beaches, recreational activities, coastal sunsets and warm weather draw the crowds.

“If we want to maintain what we all love about Florida, which is the habitat that our panthers share, we need to learn how to protect it in a more effective manner,” Budd said.

Bill McDaniel, a Collier County commissioner, said it's imperative to have a day to better inform the community on the Florida panther.

"[The Florida panther's] propagation and reestablishment in our community has been front and Center for many, many years," McDaniel said.

Just recently, the county has worked with a developer to establish two wildlife crossings just east of Golden Gate Estates, McDaniel said.

"When we're doing a habitat study for the Florida Panther, it impacts all of our wildlife that utilize the travel corridors," he said.

Arielle Callender, public information director for the South Region of the FWC, said there are only around 120-230 adult and subadult Florida panthers in Southwest Florida — primarily Collier, Lee, and Hendry counties.

Anyone can help the Florida panthers by slowing down and observing posted speed limits in panther crossing zones.

“Roadkill continues to be a leading cause of death for Florida panthers,” Callender said. “The FWC takes panther conservation seriously and we continue to work with partners including the Florida Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the number of panthers killed on Florida roadways.”

FWC has worked with organizations to construct the wildlife crossings and to improve existing bridges and fencing. Some streets have slower speed zones at night when panthers are more likely to be active, Callender said.

Anyone who wants more information on how to help the Florida panthers cango to the FWC website here.

This story was produced by the Democracy Watch course in the FGCU Journalism program. Katie Fogarty can be reached at knfogarty4088@eagle.fgcu.edu