COLLIER COUNTY — A case of a Florida panther found dead in an orange grove east of Ave Maria has been turned over to federal investigators.
The cause of death is unknown, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Dave Onorato said Monday.
Onorato said he could not comment further because of the federal investigation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached for comment late Monday afternoon.
The death of the endangered wildcat is the second in the past month that has confounded panther biologists and follows on the discovery in April of a panther shot and killed in Hendry County.
A $15,000 reward has been offered for information about that shooting, which also is under investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
An estimated 100 to 120 panthers are left in the wild, an increase from as few as 30 in the 1980s, but habitat loss remains a barrier to their recovery, scientists say.
So far this year, 14 panthers have been killed, three of them by other panthers. Nine have been struck and killed by vehicles.
The panther found in the orange grove Sept. 15 was an uncollared 2-year-old male, according to the monthly newsletter of the Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
“There seems to be a lot of mystery about it,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said Monday.
In another incident earlier this month, a panther was found floating dead in the Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve, less than a half mile south of U.S. 41 East.
A state veterinarian concluded the cause of that panther’s death was blunt force trauma to the abdomen but it could not be attributed to a vehicle strike, Onorato said.
The carcass did not have the telltale signs of a vehicle strike, including fur torn off or a cracked skull or broken spine from a collision, he said.
Onorato theorized that the injury could have been sustained when the panther jumped from a tree or was taking down prey.
A canoe guide for the Ivey House in Everglades City discovered the panther Oct. 9 floating in about 17 inches of water, according to a National Park Service report.
The panther was an uncollared female, estimated at between 3 and 4 years old, and had been dead for about two days, according to the report.
Investigators found no signs of alligators or another panther, no sign of a struggle in surrounding vegetation and no clear path from the carcass to uplands, the report states.
Law enforcement officers found a possible blood spot on the westbound lanes of U.S. 41 and took samples for analysis, the report states.
The discovery of the panther in the river is fueling calls for new measures to protect Florida panthers along U.S. 41 at Turner River.
Since 1984, eight Florida panthers have been struck by vehicles along the same stretch of U.S. 41 near Turner River, six of them since 2004.
A proposal for a wildlife crossing has met with opposition from preserve users upset about fencing limiting their access and from an Indian tribe with a sacred cultural site nearby.
Environmental groups are pushing for more immediate steps, including a lower daytime speed limit, stepped up enforcement and research into roadside systems to alert drivers to wildlife.
“We need something there right now,” said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
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