People were responsible for most of the 22 Florida panthers deaths in 2020.
According to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, one was hit by a train Another was killed by a panther. One person killed one panther intentionallyon March 7th. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a $5,000 reward in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for information leading to a suspect. Purposefully killing a panther, can land a person in federal prison for one year and fined as much as $100,000.
Cars killed the other 19 panthers found dead last year. The toll for 2020 finish lower than recent years — 27 in 2019 and 30 the year before.
The FWC estimates there are between 120-230 adult panthers living in the state. The subspecies of cougar was down to about 30 panthers in the early 1990s.
“We typically say the number of panther fatalities and roadkill are increased with the increase in panther population size,” said Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Under that logic, a lower death count might spell a bad turn for the endangered species. “It’s plausible. We don’t want to make too much of it yet, but it certainly gets our attention,” Onorato said.
Florida panthers are the only puma still roaming east of the Mississippi River. Their former range across the American Southeast has shrunk to a corner of the lower Florida peninsula. Scientists estimate between 120 and 230 adults live in the wild.
“For the most part we think the population is holding steady and stable,” Onorato said. “Signs don’t seem to show that it’s increasing at the moment.”
Environmentalists say the low numbers, and variability in the population estimate, mean the panther remains extremely at-risk.
One concerning factor for the 2020 figures is that biologists have tracked fewer panthers with radio collars than usual, according to Onorato. Their work, he said, has been hampered in part by the pandemic. Scientists have documented infections of the coronavirus in large cats. “We don’t want to be the ones responsible for transmitting (a disease) to panthers,” Onorato said.
Kittens are sometimes left to fend for themselves when parents are
killed. Florida panther kittens have blue eyes, and a spotted coat,
which helps to camouflage them better from potential predators.
The spots gradually fade as the kittens grow older.
Among researchers’ current focus is a mysterious neurological disorder in panthers, which is visible in animals hobbled by weak back legs. Onorato said biologists don’t know what causes “FLM.” feline leukomyelopathy. At least one animal with evidence of symptoms was recently spotted around the Big Cypress National Preserve, he said, researchers have positioned more cameras on public land in hopes of documenting the disorder’s prevalence.
The greatest challenge for panthers, environmentalists say, is the squeeze of development. “We’re heading toward a habitat that’s just too small to sustain a big cat,” said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
He and other advocates spent much of 2020 fighting a proposed toll road expansion known as M-CORES, which could bring a new highway near panther habitat. The leader of The Nature Conservancy in Florida called it an “existential threat.” A section of the three-part project, the Southwest-Central Connector, would run from Collier County to PolkCounty through prime Florida panther habitat.
Proponents of the toll road say it would spur development in rural Florida. But those rural areas, environmentalists say, offer crucial habitat for animals like the panther. Committees studying different segments of the road project suggested the state avoid environmentally sensitive areas.
“It really would open up the spine of Florida,” said Lopez, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Frankly there’s no additional space for the panther to go. ... Each panther needs a ton of habitat to hunt and reproduce successfully.”
Some nature advocates say they are skeptical of the idea that more panther deaths in the past have been a sign of a growing population. They wonder if lower death numbers in 2020 might show what would happen with fewer drivers in panther territory. People, they say, could have stayed at home more during the pandemic.
Bradley Cornell, a Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon Florida, said panther deaths are a reminder of the importance of preserving conservation land and big ranches as habitat in the middle of the state where the animals could expand.
The Florida Wildlife Federation campaigns to secure wildlife crossings in Southwest Florida. The organization’s local field representative, Meredith Budd said “FWF has opposed the toll roads since the idea manifested during the legislative session in 2019,”
“If the roads do move forward, crossings would be critical. They need to be considered and implemented across the board for roadways that bisect wildlife habitat — and land acquisition is also going to be essential” stating additional habitat surrounding crossings will be needed for them to function properly so wildlife may move through as intended.