The Florida panther is on its way to having another record bloody year.
This week, wildlife managers reported finding a two-and-a-half-year-old female dead in the Big Cypress National Preserve, killed by another panther. The death marks the 26th for this year, just seven shy of last year’s record.
The death comes amid a rising debate over the panther’s future. Next month, state wildlife commissioners will discuss the matter in a rare South Florida meeting.
On the one hand, hunters and ranchers say federal officials in charge of saving panthers are trying to squeeze too many panthers into too little habitat. They argue the number required under a recovery plan should be reduced.
But environmentalists argue the ploy is just a grab at opening up panther habitat for more development.
Florida panthers once roamed throughout the Southeast, but dwindled to between 20 and 30 before they were added to the endangered species list in the 1970s. They now number between 100 and 180, concentrated mostly in Collier and Hendry counties. A federal plan for saving the panthers calls for three distinct populations of 240 panthers each, including two north of the Caloosahatchee River.
While males have been spotted north of the river, no females have so far been documented, wildlife officials say.
Officials believe panther roadkills — there have been 17 so far this year — might indicate panthers looking for new territory. Twelve of the road kills have been male. Monday’s death marks the third time this year panthers have killed each other, another sign they may be outgrowing their range.