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Current Florida panther road kill pace would double state record

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press
Walton Sun

Drivers are on pace to kill 72 Florida panthers this year after six road kills were recorded in January.

That would more than double the current record of 34 vehicle deaths set in 2016.

But scientists and panther advocates say that's unlikely to happen.

Road kills often happen in bursts, and weeks can pass between road kills when the pace is slower.

"The data shows we don’t keep this pace per month," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Dave Onorato. "We kind of go through these spurts and then we go through some dry spells."

Florida panthers are the official state animal and are protected by state and federal endangered and threatened species regulations.

Biologists say they number between 120 and 230, the vast majority of which lives south of Lake Okeechobee.

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Three of the deaths have taken place in Collier County, with two happening in Hendry and one in Polk.

Collier typically leads the state in panther road kills simply because a large number of panthers live inside the county boundaries.

There's no scientific reason why six panthers died in January, Onorato said.

One theory is that there could be an increase in winter months because the cats like the cooler weather and there are more cars on the road due to tourism season.

"A panther is apt to be moving around a little more if it’s cooler," he said. "We see them from the airplane more on cool days than in the middle of summer, and if they’re moving in South Florida, they’re probably going to be crossing a road at some time."

Meredith Budd with the Florida Wildlife Federation said she hopes Onorato is right, that the pace of road kills will slow soon.

"From looking at the past we do see periods of time where there are increased deaths along the roadways," Budd said. "But I don't necessarily know that it's attributable to any pattern."

Budd pointed to last year, when panther road kills numbered five in November and then only one in December.

"In November of last year we saw a stream of panther deaths, including several kittens, but that wasn't consistent throughout the whole year," she said. "That type of pattern was not something we saw throughout the whole year, so I'm going to remain hopeful that it's an anomaly."

Budd said the number of road kills has certainly caught her attention but that she remains positive about the rest of the year.

"We can look back and see certain months have increased rates, but that doesn't translate from month to month," Budd said. "So I'm going to remain hopeful that even though we've had a very bad month for panthers, it's not something we're going to continue to see."

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.

This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.