Washington, DC — Three highly endangered Florida panthers were killed this month in separate incidents, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This brings the panther death total to 23 cats thus far for 2012, as this year threatens to eclipse the record 25 mortalities that occurred in 2007.
All four were killed by car collisions in Collier County since November 3rd and two were killed in a single day, Monday, November 19th. Two were mature (3 to 4 years old) males, neither wearing radio collars. The other two were young (4 month and one-year) females, also un-collared.
The exact number of Florida panthers remaining in the wild is not known but most estimates range between 100 and 120 animals. However, every year for the past five years more than 20 panther deaths have been recorded, with 25 deaths in 2007 and 24 deaths last year in 2011.
“The Florida panther is literally being driven to extinction,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER, noting that there have been 15 panthers killed this year by vehicle collisions, also on a pace to break the 2009 record of 17 vehicular deaths. “Significantly, there is no coherent strategy to stem the panther death rate. The only official response is to conduct autopsies and keep carcass statistics.”
The loss of female panthers, particularly those of or approaching reproductive age, is difficult for a shrinking population to bear. In addition, continuing incursions into shrinking panther habitats force more big cats to seek escape, often crossing highways to their peril.
At the same time, legal efforts to secure panther habitat from further development or encroachment have failed. Even a so-called Habitat Conservation Plan for Collier County, where all of the recent panther deaths have occurred, contemplates expanded private development in currently occupied panther breeding range. Moreover, even on preserved public lands, such as Big Cypress National Preserve, attempts to open roadless tracts to off-road vehicles threaten to disturb even this so-called natural habitat.
The Florida panther is a subspecies of the North American cougar, which once had the broadest distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western hemisphere. As the only known population east of the Mississippi, Florida panthers today are confined to southwest Florida on a fragment of their former range.
“Federal officials have been privately admitting that the Florida panther can no longer survive in the wild and will end up a ‘zoo species,’” added Ruch, whose organization has challenged the overly optimistic assumptions of state and federal wildlife agencies as well as litigated to protect panther habitat and stop plans to open up Big Cypress. “We are concerned that soon the only place in south Florida a panther can be seen is on a personalized license plate.”