Panther kittens that lost their mom at 2 weeks old getting help at ZooTampa
The Florida panther kittens will live in captivity at White Oak Conservation Center.
Andrew West, News-Press
Road kills are again the leading cause of documented Florida panther deaths as 18 total carcasses have been recovered by state biologists through June 4.
If the current rate continues to play out for the rest of the year, Florida would have about 40 panther deaths for 2021 when only 22 big cat deaths were recorded in all of 2020.
But the state likely won’t reach those numbers, though, as these deaths tend to come in spurts, scientists say.
“The past few years it has been going down, but looking at the numbers, I don’t think we’ll be hitting 40,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Mark Lotz.
Thirteen panthers this year were hit and killed by cars, two were killed by intraspecific aggression (panthers killing panthers), two died from starvation and one death is listed as unknown.
A record 42 panther deaths were recorded in 2016, with 34 of those being road kills.
Then the numbers started to drop.
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Thirty panther deaths were recorded in 2018, then 27 in 2019.
FWC biologists recorded 22 panther deaths in 2020, with the 18th death being documented on Sept. 18.
But this year looks as though it could be on the high side as the 18th death was recorded on June 4.
“We’ll be above what we were last year but I don’t see anything that’s abnormal,” Lotz said. “We might have three deaths in a week and sometimes we’ll go two months without having one.”
Lotz said one theory is that there is more traffic on highways during the winter tourism months. The cats can be more active during cooler weather, and the nights are longer, which means more hours of vehicles traveling across remote highways in the dark.
“It seems like there’s more in the winter time when there are more people down here and it’s darker earlier,” Lotz said. “It seems like every year we get a burst in January and February and we never stay at that pace. It always slows down in the summer.”
Rebuilding panther populations
Panther biologists say South Florida is likely at capacity when it comes to panther habitat, and one reason for so many road kills is there are more panthers roaming the region than there were decades ago.
Vehicle deaths are one of the top challenges to panther recovery.
“Numbers are the big thing,” Lotz said. “Currently we need three populations of 240 (for the panther to be considered recovered), so that’s kind of the goal, but habitat loss is the issue there and the connectivity of habitat. We’ve probably got as many panthers as we can have down here in South Florida.”
One population would be the current South Florida cats, and a second population would likely be in the Ocala area and in other rural parts of Central Florida north of Lake Okeechobee.
For now, the heart of the breeding population is in Collier County in places like the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, or CREW.
“(We have) remote cameras regularly capture images of Florida panthers throughout the sanctuary, including at least one new family group, a mother with kittens, this past winter,” said Shawn Clem, a biologist for Audubon at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples. “In addition to robust populations of white-tailed deer, feral hog, rabbits and other animals that serve as prey for panthers, encroaching development is making the sanctuary and the surrounding CREW lands increasingly desirable and increasingly important panther habitat.”
Crossing the Caloosahatchee River is a major obstacle for panthers as only a few females have done it in the past several decades.
Getting cats to move north and into Central Florida is a goal of the panther recovery plan.
Some local advocacy groups say they’re concerned about Florida panther deaths every year because habitat is being lost to development.
“Generally speaking we’re very concerned about the mortalities in general, whether it’s a year that’s slow or fast when compared to past years because we’re aware of all the threats panthers are facing brought on by development in our fast-growing area,” said Amber Crooks with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Crooks pointed to new villages that were approved by Collier County Tuesday as reasons why the panther is still threatened.
Those developments are planned for prime panther habitat and are in the middle of the core breeding population.
“It’s the most important area for panther survival and recovery,” Crooks said of the developments and nearby preserve lands. “We’re worried that it could contribute to habitat loss, which could contribute to intraspecific aggression, which could lead them to crossing more roads with additional traffic.”
The population was on the brink of going extinct decades ago, with an estimated 20 panthers living in the wild just 30 years ago.
The recovery came in large part from a genetic restoration project, where several female Texas cougars were released into the wild.
Panthers, at the time, had developed several undesirable physical traits as a result of inbreeding.
But today they appear to be on the rebound, although vast acres of open space will be needed for the panther to be fully recovered.
“They’re obviously going to have to expand throughout the state or even the southeast,” Lotz said of the panther’s future. “I don’t know that recovery can happen solely within the state of Florida.”
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.