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Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com

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Although the Florida panther population is growing, the number of overall documented deaths may be down this year for the first time in years. 

Twenty-eight big cats have died this year, with 23 of those being road kills and the others with cause of death listed as intraspecific aggression (panthers killing panthers) and unknown. 

That's down from last year's record of 42 overall deaths and 34 vehicle kills, although there are still three weeks left in the year. 

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"We hope there will be fewer cars struck by panthers by cars this year than last year and we’ll see if that’s a trend or there’s just a slight down-tick," said Darrell Land, a panther biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission working in Naples. "(But) one year doesn't make a long-term trend." 

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Forty-one panther deaths were documented in 2015, with 33 deaths in 2014 and 21 deaths in 2013 — the last time deaths were below 30 for a year. 

Here are some other interesting facts about the year in panthers: 

► A second female panther was documented north of the Caloosahatchee River in the Fisheating Creek area earlier this year. This is only the second female found north of the river since 1973, and the first was in November of 2016. Having females move north of the river is one of the goals in the panther recovery plan. 

► Deaths in the panther breeding stronghold of Collier County were down from 21 in 2016 to 12 in 2017. Land and others say this could be due to the extensive amount of panther fencing along Highway 29 and Interstate 75 in Collier. 

►Depredations (panthers killing livestock and domestic animals) have gone up from 42 in 2016 to 63 in 2017. Land said the state hired a specialist last year to help inform the public about how and when to report depredations, and that the numbers could have gone up simple because more people know to report cat kills. 

► The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission upped its estimate on the number of panthers earlier this year from a range of 120 to 230 cats living in South Florida, up from an estimate of 100 to 180. 

► The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will review the status of the Florida panther and any needed changes in how it's listed. If the panther's status were lowered from endangered to threatened, state and federal laws would still protect the cats. 

Panthers are considered an umbrella species, an animal whose health is used to judge how a larger ecosystem is reacting to development pressures and landscape changes.

The animal was listed as an endangered subspecies in 1967 and is the only known breeding population in the eastern United States. 

And although the big cats are the state animal, some ranchers and farmers in South and Central Florida don't want panthers around. Several of the big cats have been shot in recent years, and several more were shot and killed in North Florida during an expansion effort there in the 1990s. 

The panther restoration plan says the federal government can consider delisting the Florida panther when there are three populations of 240 or more living in distinct, separate areas. 

There were only a few dozen panthers living in South Florida during the 1970s and 1980s. Hunting, habitat loss and inbreeding were some of the causes for the decline. 

Collier County was really the only place where panthers were breeding at the time, but they've expanded their breeding range in the past 15 years or so. 

"That’s how we always envisioned it," said Dave Onorato, an FWC biologist. "As they move north they’re getting off public lands and get onto private lands and they get closer to roads where a cat in Big Cypress may never put a foot on roads."

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter. 

More: Purrfect encounter: Man spots panther, kittens at Big Cypress

Florida panther deaths

2017: 28

2016: 42

2015: 41

2014: 33

2012: 27

2011: 25

2010: 24

2009: 25

2008: 23

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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