Washington, DC — Three highly endangered Florida panthers were killed this past week in separate incidents, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This brings the panther death total for 2012 to 19 cats thus far, as this year threatens to eclipse the record 24 mortalities that occurred in 2011.
All three were killed by car collisions in Collier County since last Saturday. One was a mature (2½ year-old) radio-collared female; another was a juvenile (3 month old) un-collared female and the third was a year-old un-collared male.
The exact number of Florida panthers remaining in the wild is not known but most estimates range between 100 and 120 animals. Regardless of the precise number, these continuing high death rates raise concerns about the viability of this besieged population:
- Panther deaths are likely exceeding replacement from new litters. This means the wild population may be shrinking, starting a spiral toward extinction in the wild;
- Vehicle-caused panther deaths this year (11) already exceed the vehicle-related deaths (9) during the record mortality year of 2011 just as tourist season gets into full swing; and
- The loss of females, especially of reproductive age, is harder for a small population to bear.
Aggravating concerns is that undisturbed wild habitat for the Florida panther continues to shrink from sprawling developments and plans to open backcountry on public lands to off-road vehicles – the latter is the subject of a legal battle being waged at Big Cypress National Preserve. At the same time, federal authorities refuse to set aside critical habitat for the panther. The absence of critical habitat leaves the panther at the mercy of Florida’s real estate market. A coalition of groups is also suing the federal government to force critical habitat designation for the panther.
“Despite all the scientific conferences and papers, our Florida panther management strategy basically is to collect the carcasses and hope for the best,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER which is litigating both for panther habitat and against off-road intrusion into Big Cypress Addition Lands.
Some state officials minimize these deaths with the assertion that they are signs of a healthy, growing population seeking to expand its range outside of South Florida. PEER points out that all three of these deaths were in current panther range in Southwest Florida. “The rationalizations for official inaction get more creative year-by-year,” Ruch added. “Rising road-kill is not a good sign for the Florida panther.”