Panther deaths up slightly this year, road kills remain No. 1 threat to big cats

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Documented Florida panther deaths are a little lower than they've been in some recent years, but the pace of road kills is up this year compared to last as 19 big cats have been hit and killed by cars. 

State biologists record dozens of panther deaths each year, with the vast majority of those being road kills. 

Of the 25 documented deaths this year, only six have not been road kills. Other causes were listed as unknown (two), starvation (two kittens) and intraspecific aggression (two males killed by other panthers.)

Last year, 22 panthers were killed, nearly all by car strikes. Eighteen were killed through October of last year. In 2019, 27 panther deaths were documented, with six of those killed in November and December.

Dave Onorato, a panther biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said there may be more road kills to come this year with two months left in 2021. 

"Right now we are at 19 with two months left," Onorato said of the fatalities by car strikes. "Nineteen was the total for 2020. We’d anticipate a few more vehicle-panther mortalities this year. The record was 34 vehicle-panther mortalities in 2016, so we are still quite below that mark." 

A Florida panther trips a motion sensor camera set up by News-Press Photographer at Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in late March 2020. Environmentalists say losing wetlands also means losing wildlife habitat for such threatened and endangered species as the Florida panther.

Onorato said this year's overall pace seems a little slow when compared to the most recent five-year averages. 

Meredith Budd with the Florida Wildlife Federation said she's always concerned about road kills and the overall population. 

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"It is, of course, disappointing to see there have been 19 panthers hit and killed by vehicles this year," Budd said. "It is especially concerning when panthers, like the individual hit most recently in Hendry County, are 3 years old or younger. And this is because panthers do not reach sexual maturity until they are between about 2 or 3 years old."

The Florida panther is a protected subspecies of the cougar and is considered endangered in its home range. 

Biologists estimate there are upwards of 230 panthers living south of Lake Okeechobee. 

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"So, when individual panthers are killed before they reach an age that they can help to contribute to growing the population, it's especially concerning for recovery efforts," Budd said. "Even more so because panthers are also now faced with the threat of feline leukemia — which is still, largely, not well understood," Budd said. 

Feline leukemia is a relatively new disease that causes panthers and bobcats to display neurological issues, like difficulty walking because of problems with the hind quarters. 

FWC biologists are monitoring a network of cameras to see if any more cats show symptoms of the disease. 

So how can people help panthers?

"Almost all of the state of Florida’s research and management is supported by the sale of the “Protect the Panther” license plates," Onorato said. "Our program is not funded by general revenue (taxes). Purchases of these plates over the past 20-plus years by Floridians has helped to avert the extinction of panthers in the early 1990s and has helped fuel our progress towards recovery."

The Florida panther population numbered a few dozen in the 1990s but has rebounded tenfold since the state introduced eight female Texas cougars to South Florida. 

Many of the cougars had kittens, and the population is now upwards of 230 panthers living south of Lake Okeechobee. 

Onorato said people can also advocate for conservation easements and protecting wildlands for native wildlife, and by staying alert when driving through areas where panthers may be found. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.