The struggle to save Florida’s imperiled panthers reached a new milestone this week: a record number killed.
With three weeks left in the year, a year-old female struck by a car on a rural county road in Hendry County — one where state officials reduced the speed limit two years ago to try to save the big cats — became the 37th documented death in 2015. The death marks the 26th roadkill, two more than in 2014, which is also a record.
The upbeat view is that the escalating number could serve as proof that the number of panthers, estimated at between 100 and 180 south of the Caloosahatchee River, is on the rebound.
“We don’t like to see it happen, but in a way it’s reflective of our conservation success because we have so many more panthers than we did,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy chief of species and habitat conservation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But the news could also be dire: hemmed in by increasing development, panthers are running out of space.
“I can reel off a half-dozen projects — Ave Maria University, Corkscrew Farms and the Florida Power & Light plant — all in primary panther habitat,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “It’s a grim outlook for our state animal.”
The stretch where the female died Tuesday is a heavily forested road through the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest considered among the most treacherous spots for panthers, said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida program director for Defenders of Wildlife. Since 2010, a half-dozen cats have died in the area.
The death is doubly troubling because the female cat was so far north. For years, wildlife managers have hoped to have a female cross the river to establish another breeding population.
“That’s the last hurdle before State Road 80 and then you’re at the river,” Fleming said. “It’s a shame when any of them get killed. But the females moving north is what we need.”
With so many deaths caused by vehicles, state officials and environmentalists are working to come up with ways to make roads safer and identify hotspots, particularly along rural roads where traffic might be light but cars tend to speed. More wildlife crossings have been added in recent years and last month, the state announced plans to close a 9-mile gap in fencing along Interstate 75 east of the Naples toll plaza.
But that fix only works “if you put them in the right places,” Frohlich said. “And you can’t put them everywhere.”
Figuring out exactly where panthers live might be a better fix, he said. So scientists are also looking at using trail cameras and tracking data from panthers with radio collars to find areas panthers prefer in order to increase protections and improve management.
“It’s not a count of every individual panther,” he said, “but it’s a line of research that we think holds a lot of promise.”
Over the last year, much has been made of the state’s panther count and whether it’s entirely accurate.
Ranchers argue the number is likely higher, based on the number of livestock attacked. This year they reported 32 attacks, down from a record 39 last year. They, along with hunters who have complained about fewer deer, want a 2008 federal management plan that calls for two more breeding populations north of the river scaled back and more done, like shooting nuisance panthers, to protect livestock.
The issue boiled over during the summer and fall when FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy, a rancher, helped draft a policy statement for the state without including the biologists who had spent years working on recovery. The plan called for the state to abandon efforts to establish the additional populations, leaving the work to federal wildlife managers.
“Recovery will never be successful because there’s too many people that recovery affects,” Priddy said at a September meeting.
The draft drew so much criticism that state and federal officials instead decided to launch a new review of the 2008 management plan, which both sides agreed had languished.
“That sure did get their attention,” Fleming said. “They came to the next meeting and they have pledged to work on this and work more closely.”