Florida panther road kills are down, but that may reveal a greater threat

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Only three panthers have been hit and killed by cars this year; and while that may sound like good news, the big cat may be in trouble as it appears the population could be declining.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists say a trend has appeared the past few years, with fewer of the big cats being hit by cars and more cats being found with feline leukomyelopathy, or FLM.

The mysterious disease first appeared in panthers in April 2017, and biologists have little understanding of the disease or how the panthers are acquiring it.

"We’ve been seeing that declining trend for the past few years, but this is certainly a noticeable drop," said FWC panther biologist Mar Lotz in an email. "It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause but I think we can probably include FLM among the culprits."

Thirteen panthers were hit and killed by cars in 2022 through the same period, with 14 suffering the same fate in 2021 during that time frame.

The agency has long said that an increase in road deaths means an increase in the overall population. Does that mean that fewer panther road kills – just three so far this year – mean there are fewer panthers to be killed?

A Florida panther tripped a motion sensor camera set up by News-Press photographer Andrew West in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in early May of 2022. Biologists and advocacy groups think the population may be threatened by a neurological disorder that first appeared in 2017.

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"(FWC) has put out the global SOS on this to find the cause so we can try to solve it," said Amber Crooks, environmental policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "It's very scary."

The state animal, the Florida panther was on the brink of extinction as a subspecies in the 1990s as the big cat had nearly been outhunted earlier in the 1900s.

A few dozen panthers remained after the 1970s, and genetic diversity suffered to the point that males were being born without the ability to breed.

A group of seven female Texas cougars were introduced to the South Florida population to add genetic diversity to what was then a dwindling population.

The panthers responded well, and the most recent FWC estimates say there are between 120 and 230 living in South Florida today.

But it appears the recovery of the subspecies may have hit an obstacle.

"A month or so ago we enquired about this very thing," Crooks said. "On the one hand you don't want to see more mortalities, but the fact that it is such a different trend and the amount that we've seen in the past, does that suggest there's something else impacting them."

Elise Bennett, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said she's been curious about recent panther numbers as well.

"This is extremely low," she said of the low number of road kills. "We know that the road kill threat has not been reduced and if anything, it's growing as we have more development. It couldn't be reduced threat. Is it fewer cars? Are there fewer panthers to be hit?

Meredith Budd, director of external affairs for Live Wildly, said it's difficult to say exactly what the overall population is doing at this time.

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"I think it’s very hard to use partial data for a few months out of a year to use as an indicator for the status of a species or how many we’ll see throughout the year," Budd said. "I’ve heard people say when we have a higher rate of mortality that’s maybe an indication of a growing population. To that same end, if we have less (road deaths) is that indicative of we have less."

Crooks said the situation is dire.

"It's extremely troubling," Crooks said. "We need to solve this FLM mystery and protect their habitat from the other threats that are imperiling the situation."

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