Wildlife officials: 20 Florida panthers killed this year

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – At least 20 Florida panthers have died in 2020, a toll that appears to be on track to finish lower than in previous years.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that almost all of the panther deaths were caused by people. One panther was, however, killed by another panther.

Another was hit by a train and someone mutilated yet another panther and left it's remains on a roadside near Immokalee, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Every other panther death this year was caused by cars, wildlife officials said.

In 2019, the state recorded 27 panther deaths, while 2018 saw 30 big cat deaths.

“We typically say the number of panther fatalities and roadkill are increased with the increase in panther population size,” Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Times.

So, he added, it's possible that a lower death count might spell a bad turn for the endangered species.

“It’s plausible. We don’t want to make too much of it yet, but it certainly gets our attention,” Onorato told the newspaper.

Florida panthers are the only puma still roaming east of the Mississippi River. Their former range across the American Southeast has shrunk to a corner of the lower Florida peninsula, where scientists estimate between 120 and 230 adults live in the wild, the Times reported.

“For the most part we think the population is holding steady and stable,” Onorato said. “Signs don’t seem to show that it’s increasing at the moment.”

The low numbers, and variability in the population estimate, mean the panther remains extremely at-risk, scientists said.

“The panther is like this patient that’s in a bed in (the intensive care unit) and is in stable condition,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the newspaper. “You’re not going to send the panther home. ... Any wrong turn can put it at risk of plummeting into extinction.”

Onorato pointed to a complicating factor for the 2020 figures. Biologists have tracked fewer panthers with radio collars than usual, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists have documented infections of the coronavirus in large cats, he said.

“We don’t want to be the ones responsible for transmitting (a disease) to panthers,” Onorato said

Researchers are alos focused on a mysterious neurological disorder in panthers, which is visible in animals hobbled by weak back legs.

Onorato said biologists don’t know what causes feline leukomyelopathy. At least one animal with evidence of symptoms was recently spotted around the Big Cypress National Preserve, Onorato said. That prompted researchers to position more cameras on public land in hopes of documenting the disorder’s prevalence.

Even so, the greatest challenge facing panthers is the squeeze of development, the Times reported.

“We’re heading toward a habitat that’s just too small to sustain a big cat,” said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

Advocates are fighting a proposed toll road expansion, which could bring a new highway near panther habitat. The leader of The Nature Conservancy in Florida called it an “existential threat.”

Proponents say the toll road would spur development in rural Florida, while environmentalists said those areas offer crucial habitat for animals like the panther.

Committees studying different segments of the road project suggested the state avoid environmentally sensitive areas, the Times reported.

“It really would open up the spine of Florida,” said Lopez, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Frankly there’s no additional space for the panther to go. ... Each panther needs a ton of habitat to hunt and reproduce successfully.”