2015 has not been a good year for the Florida Panther. Already one of the most critically endangered species in the world, the small group of big cats still clinging to survival in our state has slowly clawing its way back since its nadir in the 1970s, when only 20 adult panthers were thought to have remained in the wild.
Conservation efforts have brought the species back to a degree, with numbers estimated to be around 100 to 160 in the wild in recent years, but is still vulnerable, with much of its territory overlapping with human development and traffic.
Tragically, this past year saw a record number of panther deaths caused by traffic. As of the week of Christmas, 40 panther deaths were recorded throughout 2015, with 29 of those deaths being a result of collisions with vehicles. The latest death was on December 21st, when a one-year-old male panther was struck by a car in Collier County.
These numbers have not gone unnoticed on the federal level, as Vern Buchanan, the U.S. Representative of Florida’s 16th district, has asked that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside land that can serve as critical habitat for the species.
“Each year, the Florida panther population continues to shrink in size as more big cats are hit and killed by cars because they lack a safe habitat,” Buchanan said. “Although these panthers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they face extinction because they have no protected area to live and repopulate. We should not stand by and do nothing as yet another endangered species is wiped off the earth. We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.”
Earlier in December, Buchanan joined with several other of the State’s U.S. Representatives in order to produce a letter asking President Barack Obama for further protections for the endangered cat.
“The Florida panther is one of the most endangered species in the world as less than 180 of them survive today,” the letter read. “As you know, the two greatest threats to the Florida panther are the loss of habitat and automobile-related deaths, both of which are caused by increased development in environmentally sensitive areas. The best available science suggests that current lands in conservation do not provide enough suitable habitat area to support even the limited number of existing panthers. Further, on November 28th, two more panthers were killed by cars.
“As members of the Florida delegation, we are writing to request your support in establishing a critical habitat designation for the endangered Florida panther,” it continued. “The Florida panther was listed as an endangered species in 1973, but critical habitat has never been established, even though the Endangered Species Act includes a requirement for the designation of critical habitat for endangered species. In other words, the Florida panther is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, unfortunately its home is not.
“It is of great importance to designate a critical habitat not only because it would preserve and encourage the growth of the current population of Florida panthers, but also because it would help to protect other valuable environmental resources, such as wetlands, aquifer-recharge areas, drinking water supplies and the habitat of other endangered species. At the top of the food chain, Florida panthers help keep feral hog numbers in check and deer, raccoon and other prey populations balanced and healthy. Moreover, a designation of critical habitat does not mean that no further development is allowed in an area, it simply requires additional review when projects requiring federal permits would impact habitats considered essential to preventing the Florida panther from going extinct.
“We urge you to ensure the continued existence of the Florida panther and the preservation of Southwest Florida’s natural resources and unique character by supporting the designation of critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther,” the letter concluded. “Thank you for your time and consideration. The decision to take action now will provide a historic opportunity for protecting the Earth’s most endangered ‘umbrella species’ – the Florida panther.”