A car hit a Florida panther Tuesday morning in Lee County, making it the fifth panther to die in 2016 and the fourth to be killed by a car.
If panthers keep dying at this pace, they will set a record for deaths per year, said Dave Onorato, a research scientist with the Florida Panther Project, which is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Last year there were 41 panther deaths, 30 of which were road deaths, according to the FWC website. Forty-one is the highest number of panther deaths since the FWC started tracking panthers in the 1980s.
“We often go through these states of a group of road mortalities, or mortalities in general, and then we may not get a documented mortality for a period of time,” Onorato said.
There were no clump deaths, or a group of mortalities, because the 41 deaths were spread out, Onorato said.
The increase in panther deaths may be because of an increase in the panther population, Onorato said. But Big Cypress National Preserve biologist Deborah Jansen added a different possibility.
An increase in mortality rates for panthers “indicates an increase in [humans in] South Florida for the winter,” Jansen said. What that means is that as more people come to South Florida, the more they are likely to encroach on the panthers’ habitat.
At last count, Florida’s population was about 20 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of people in Collier and Glades counties, where the majority of Florida panthers live, is about 360,000.
The estimated number of Florida panthers left, according to FWC, is 100 to 180.
Onorato and Jansen both said the increase in the human population of South Florida is decreasing the natural breeding habitat of the panthers.
“You can imagine the less places for them to roam, the more likely that they’re going to come into conflict, especially with roadways,” Onorato said.
For panthers with collars for tracking, the No. 1 reason for mortality is the cats attacking each other. Specifically, male panthers are aggressive toward each other, and often encounters result in death, Onorato said.
But, for collared and non-collared combined, road deaths still comprise the highest percentage of deaths, Onorato said.
When a panther dies of either natural causes or from a road death, it is transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Gainesville for a necropsy. The male panther that was hit Tuesday arrived in Gainesville Thursday afternoon for the procedure, said Mark Cunningham, the veterinarian with the Research Institute of FWC, who was scheduled to perform the necropsy.
The necropsy determines the cause of death and if there are genetic anomalies. It includes taking tissue samples to test for feline AIDS or leukemia.
After the procedure, all of the dead panthers used to go to the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus to be logged and preserved, Verity Mathis, collection manager of Mammalogy at the museum said. But now only a few are saved and most are cremated, Onorato said.
There are ways to help prevent accidental panther deaths, such as building overpasses or having drivers slow down in panther territory. But construction projects are expensive and drivers are hard to control, Onorato said.
The Florida Panther Project is funded mainly by the Florida panther license plates or donations, which Onorato said helps keep the project and the panthers alive by funding the research.
Jansen said it’s necessary for the environment that panthers survive.
“An intact ecosystem, with a top predator where everything below it can live…, equals the health of our environment,” Jansen said.