Florida panther road kills, overall deaths down in 2019
Florida panther road kills were down in 2019 compared to recent years, but that might not be a good thing as more road kills generally means there are more panthers roaming the Sunshine State.
Twenty-seven panther deaths were documented last year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency charged with protecting endangered and threatened species.
Twenty-three of those deaths were caused by vehicle collisions, down from 26 in 2018 and 24 in 2017. A record 34 panthers were killed by cars in 2016, according to FWC records.
"Par for the course, perhaps a bit down summarizes things pretty well," said Dave Onorato, an FWC panther biologist.
The iconic Florida panther is the official state animal with population numbers between 120 and 230 individuals, most of which live south of Lake Okeechobee and in or near Collier County.
That population range was published in 2017, replacing the estimate of 100 to 180 individuals.
The population had gone up, FWC said at the time, and the new numbers reflected the additional estimated cats.
In recent years, as panther deaths have risen, biologists have said the increase in road kills simply means there are more panthers.
More panthers on more roads with more cars equals more dead panthers.
This past year was a little on the low side in regards to overall documented deaths and road kills compared to the past five years.
"One year does not make a trend, but if road kills continue to decline, it would be something that would start to get our attention, given that we historically use it as a somewhat morbid indicator of trajectory of the population size," Onorato said. "... (An) increasing number of road kills coinciding with increasing number of panthers in the population and vice-versa."
Lanky tan-colored cats with extremely long tails, panthers occupy the top spot of the local food chain.
Amber Crooks, an environmental policy expert at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the numbers could be reason for concern about the future of Florida panthers.
"If it’s a trend, it could be telling us about the population numbers," Crooks said. "I do have a concern with the numbers — is this telling us something troubling?"
Crooks said the fewer numbers could also be partially attributed to additional wildlife crossings and road protections that have been put in place in recent years.
"There have been some improvements to structures and several miles of fencing along Interstate 75, just east of the tollway on Alligator Alley," Crooks said. "But we’ve also had a lot more development and there is need for more landscape connectors."
Females range in size from about 70 to 100 pounds, with males weighing upwards of 170 pounds, according to FWC records.
Most adult cats measure between 6 and 7 feet from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.
Historically, the big cats roamed across most of the southeastern United States but were hunted to near extinction decades ago.
Panthers are occasionally found north of the lake and even as far away as Georgia.
Getting breeding females to travel north of the Caloosahatchee River is a major roadblock, although a female and kittens were documented north of the river in recent years.
The Florida panther is the only population of cougars living east of the Mississippi River, and it's protected by federal and state laws.
Restoration plans include growing the number of cats to three separate populations of at least 240 individuals.
The second and third populations would likely be located outside of Florida, researchers and biologists working with panther recovery have said.
Loss of hunting and breeding habitat is the top threat to the panther recovery, according to biologists.
Panthers numbered as few as two dozen in the 1990s, when a group of Texas cougars were introduced to the historic Everglades in order to increase the genetic diversity of Florida's cats.
That program worked as the population south of Lake Okeechobee has rebounded, but some panther experts and advocacy groups think the region may be at capacity when it comes to suitable panther habitat.
Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.
This story originally published to tcpalm.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.