It’s been a bloody year for the Florida panther.
So far this year, 30 panthers have been killed, a record number for a population that otherwise has been on the rebound. Most of the panthers were struck by vehicles in Collier and Hendry counties in Southwest Florida, where the big cats are concentrated in a fraction of their historic range.
Another mark also fell: The 100 to 180 Florida panthers now estimated to roam the state also killed a record number of calves, goats, sheep, ponies and pets.
Both tallies reveal just how tricky one of the nation’s more complicated endangered species rescue missions has become. To expand into new hunting grounds, cats need to navigate highways, ranch lands and backyards — places where the top predator increasingly finds itself in conflict with humans.
“It’s a challenge in a state like Florida, which is the third or fourth most populous in the country,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy chief of species and habitat conservation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “That does not come without a price.”
For the cat to fully recover, wildlife managers have long talked about establishing at least two more large breeding populations north of the Caloosahatchee River. They planned to begin that process by relocating existing cats from the overcrowded southwest Florida habitat.
But politically powerful ranchers and hunters have objected, saying the cost is too high. And now wildlife managers are rethinking whether the goal “is the correct measure,” said Victoria Foster, Florida chief of staff for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Foster said an expansion north of the river would offer more panther territory but large connected swaths not already under development are hard to find.
“It’s just a complex and challenging issue,” she said. “There’s not enough public land available.”
Florida panthers once roamed from Louisiana south. But by the 1990s, they teetered on the brink of extinction. Just 20 to 30 remained, far too few to survive. So in 1995, the state proposed a drastic experiment and imported eight Texas female cougars to mate with Florida male panthers. The plan worked, with five of the females giving birth to 20 kittens. Today, state wildlife officials estimate there may be as many as are 180 panthers.
But while the panthers were mounting a mini comeback, they were also being squeezed into shrinking habitats. Thousands of acres of upland pine woods and hardwood hammocks in Collier and Hendry counties — once prime cat habitat — have been paved over.
“For this population to continue to grow, it’s got to go northward,” said Elizabeth Fleming, a Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “And that’s one of the effects of all these animals being run over. It’s keeping them from expanding by limiting their numbers.”
The panthers are wary of humans and contact remains rare. In their last review of encounters in 2013, federal officials counted just four. One occurred when a camp manager spotted a panther chasing a deer through a Girl Scout Camp in Hendry County. The panther fled when the manager yelled at it. Trail cameras later confirmed it was a male panther. Panthers were also spotted in a neighborhood west of Naples, once crossing a road and twice lounging in backyards.
Attacks on domesticated animals and game targeted by hunters has proved a thornier problem.
State wildlife conservation commissioner Leisa Priddy, whose family started ranching in Hendry County in the 1940s, said her ranch loses about 25 calves a year, at a value of about $1,500 each. This year, a University of Florida study found that panthers were indeed killing calves more than the coyotes, bears and vultures that also preyed on herds.
“People say you should have known panthers were there. But when we decided to ranch here, there weren’t panthers,” she said.
Priddy believes establishing a second or third population would tie up land in too many restrictions property owners would oppose. “They’re not being welcomed with open arms anywhere else, even in other states,” she said.
Earlier this year, state and federal wildlife officials met with environmentalists, ranchers and hunters to try to better address concerns and are now putting together a working group to come up with recommendations, Frohlich said.
U.S. wildlife officers, who decided not to establish a critical habitat for the panther in 2010, are also continuing to work with ranchers and other large land owners to find ways to preserve habitat, including paying for conservation efforts, Foster said.
“A lot of private land owners ... manage their lands in ways that are wonderful for panthers, so we are looking at ways to work with them,’’ she said.
The state is also looking at improve crossings with tunnels and fences, Frohlich said, although Fleming argued much more needs to be done.
“We know where a lot of those chronic road segments are and we need to find funding and work with transportation agencies,” Fleming said.
Despite objections, Fleming said panthers should be given a chance to expand north, a move she thinks they would willingly make. In 2008, a Florida panther wound up in Georgia, only to be shot dead by a hunter.
“So it is possible,” she said. “The biggest barrier right now could be social intolerance.”