So far this year, panther biologists have found five panther dens with a total of 14 panther kittens in them. Three of those have been found in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and two have been found in the Picayune Strand State Forest.
NAPLES — As 2009 ended, Florida panther scientists chalked up a grisly figure: 17.
That was the record number of the endangered cats killed in collisions with vehicles, mostly in Collier and Lee counties, last year.
The death toll begged the question: Are there more cats roaming around than scientists know about?
Now the numbers are in, and they’re holding steady.
The 2009 annual panther census counted 113 panthers, the third year in a row that the count has topped 100.
The count has been climbing since 1994, when the annual census recorded fewer than 30 panthers.
As the annual count has gone up, so have the number of panther roadkill deaths, mirroring the dips and peaks along the way.
The increase coincided with the relocation of eight female Texas cougars to Southwest Florida to restore the panther gene pool.
“There’s nothing to indicate we’re reversing that trend and plummeting back to 30 cats by any stretch,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land.
But after hitting bottom, the secretive predators seem to be running out of room in South Florida.
“We do believe it’s close to carrying capacity,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said.
Just exactly how many panthers there are remains a mystery.
“We know we don’t have an absolute ability to count panthers,” Land said.
For one, the annual counts include only juvenile and adult panthers, not kittens in their dens.
The annual count is more like a year-long search for evidence, led by renowned wildcat tracker Roy McBride.
Trackers record panther tracks, scat, urine markers and prey kills and then determine which panthers left what, according to a description of the trackers’ methods in the 2009 report.
For example, gender is determined by track size or stride length. The freshness of the tracks and the distance between where they were found help trackers differentiate between panthers of the same gender.
The age of tracks can be determined, for example, if they were made after a rain the previous day, were found on top of trackers’ tire tracks or in sand after a windy day.
Tracking hounds could pick up on scent trails if the tracks were left less than 12 hours before.
Trackers would count two separate panthers if individual female panther tracks were found further than 10 kilometers apart and individual male panther tracks were found further than 17 kilometers apart in the same 24-hour period.
Sometimes trackers would get extra help linking a track to a panther because the cat would have a missing toe or a crooked foot.
High-tech tracking collars on some panthers, trail cameras, aerial surveys and annual captures help trackers confirm their conclusions.
In 2008, McBride added trackers who spread out over a pre-determined area with hand-held GPS units for a one-day hunt for tracks.
Using this method, trackers were able to deduce that two males and three females were using the western Corkscrew Swamp region on one day in March 2008.
Adding up the panther numbers is only part of the annual census; it also subtracts the deaths.
In 2009, that was 24 deaths, including the 17 roadkills. Panthers also can die from unknown causes or in fights with other panthers.
That leaves a bottom line of 89 panthers, but Land, with the Conservation Commission, says there’s a “pretty good chance” some of the dead panthers weren’t counted in the first place.
Land said he’s confident the standard estimate of between 100 and 120 panthers left in the wild is a good one.
“We have a lot of cats die but we know cats are making a lot of babies,” Land said.
So far this year, panther biologists have found five panther dens with a total of 14 panther kittens in them.
Three of those have been found in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and two have been found in the Picayune Strand State Forest.
Land said the Conservation Commission is undertaking a “population viability analysis” that includes a closer look at kitten survival rate.
The big question facing the endangered panther in Southwest Florida is whether it can keep up with habitat loss.
A coalition of environmental groups has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision to not designate critical habitat for the panther. That designation would add a new level of review to development permits.
Another set of environmental groups, allied with large landowners in rural Collier County, is pushing a plan that would allow development across parts of some 200,000 acres around Immokalee in return for preserving habitat there.
The federal blueprint for panther recovery calls for relocating panthers to other parts of the Southeast to add to the Southwest Florida population.
So far, though, there is “no timetable” for relocation plans, said Warren, with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Federal funding for the annual panther counts runs out after the 2010 count.
“We fully expect we’ll continue to renew it,” Warren said.
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