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Florida Panther Deaths Still a Problem, Despite Population Growth

Dr. Mark Cunningham (right) measures the length of a 4-year-old Florida panther. The panther was killed by a car on I-75 in Collier County. Jordanne Laurito/WUFT News
Dr. Mark Cunningham (right) measures the length of a 4-year-old Florida panther. The panther was killed by a car on I-75 in Collier County. Jordanne Laurito/WUFT News

A mother and daughter lay dead in a small, clinical room.

Hit by cars just days apart, their remains were frozen and transported hundreds of miles from their home in Collier County, Florida, to be examined by Mark Cunningham, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s veterinarian in charge of Florida panther necropsies.

Three assistants sporting FWC shirts busied themselves taking pictures of FP219, the eldest of the two panthers.

“I apologize, she’s pretty rotten,” Cunningham said, adjusting his thin glasses on the bridge of his nose. “With the heat down there, they start stinking pretty quickly.”

On Sept. 18, FP219 was hit on I-75 in Collier County. She was the 27th Florida panther killed this year, and the 18th to be killed by a vehicle.

Twelve days later, panther K432 followed in her mother’s footsteps.

“It happens this way sometimes, where the family splits up but then they come looking for each other,” he said. “It’s sad, but that’s how it goes.”

Cunningham, who has worked for the FWC since 1993, said efforts to recover the Florida panther have been overall successful.

“The bottom line is that we’re still dealing with a relatively small population,” Cunningham said. “Florida’s population continues to grow, and habitat disappears… these are challenges we will have to face as we move forward.”

The population rose from about 20 to 30 panthers in 1995 to an estimated 100 to 180 in 2015, according to the FWC.

Currently, the two most-observed causes of panther deaths are cars and panthers killing each other, usually over territorial disputes.  The highest known record set for panther mortality was in 2014, with 25 road kills and 33 total deaths.

Kipp Frolich, FWC deputy division director, said that cars have been a “huge problem for some time.” He said that the FWC works with the Department of Transportation to construct wildlife underpasses, or tunnels for panthers and other animals to cross beneath busy roads.

Also, Frolich was heavily involved with drafting an updated position paper that was released in early September. The paper defines the FWC’s goals regarding Florida panthers for the next few years, as their habitat in South Florida continues to overlap with developments and roads.

“The subject of panthers holds a lot of interest with our commissioners,” Frolich said. “So every 3 or 4 years we’ll look at what we’re doing and what we want to do.”

The paper emphasizes a focus on the existing South Florida population, as the FWC panther research team is located in Collier County.

“It’s hard to say what the right number of panthers really is,” he said.

In 2008, FWC researchers estimated a target population of 240 panthers.

“There’s currently a lot of questions on whether that’s the right number,” Frolich said. “We’re re-looking at the data, and asking if there should even be a specific number.”

The paper also supports the restoration of public lands that could potentially house panthers, and minimize conflict with humans.

“In the end, our goal is to maintain a healthy, sustainable panther population,” Frolich said.

Jordanne is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached at news@wuft.org or 352-392-6397.