At least 20 Florida panthers died in 2020, almost all of them because of people

At least 20 Florida panthers died in 2020, almost all of them because of people.

One was killed by another panther, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Another was hit by a train. A person killed one panther intentionally, leaving its body mutilated on the side of a road near Immokalee.

Every other cat found dead this year was felled by a typical culprit: cars.

The toll, updated as of Thursday morning, appeared on track to finish lower than recent years — 27 in 2019 and 30 the year before.

“We typically say the number of panther fatalities and roadkill are increased with the increase in panther population size,” said Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Under that logic, a lower death count might spell a bad turn for the endangered species. “It’s plausible. We don’t want to make too much of it yet, but it certainly gets our attention,” Onorato said.

Florida panthers are the only puma still roaming east of the Mississippi River. Their former range across the American Southeast has shrunk to a corner of the lower Florida peninsula. Scientists estimate between 120 and 230 adults live in the wild.

“For the most part we think the population is holding steady and stable,” Onorato said. “Signs don’t seem to show that it’s increasing at the moment.”

Environmentalists say the low numbers, and variability in the population estimate, mean the panther remains extremely at-risk.

“The panther is like this patient that’s in a bed in (the intensive care unit) and is in stable condition,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “You’re not going to send the panther home. ... Any wrong turn can put it at risk of plummeting into extinction.”

One complicating factor for the 2020 figures is that biologists have tracked fewer panthers with radio collars than usual, according to Onorato. Their work, he said, has been hampered in part by the pandemic. Scientists have documented infections of the coronavirus in large cats.

“We don’t want to be the ones responsible for transmitting (a disease) to panthers,” Onorato said.

Among researchers’ current focus is a mysterious neurological disorder in panthers, which is visible in animals hobbled by weak back legs. Onorato said biologists don’t know what causes feline leukomyelopathy, referred to in shorthand as “FLM.” At least one animal with evidence of symptoms was recently spotted around the Big Cypress National Preserve, he said, prompting researchers to position more cameras on public land in hopes of documenting the disorder’s prevalence.

The greatest challenge for panthers, environmentalists say, is the squeeze of development.

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“We’re heading toward a habitat that’s just too small to sustain a big cat,” said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

He and other advocates spent much of 2020 fighting a proposed toll road expansion, which could bring a new highway near panther habitat. The leader of The Nature Conservancy in Florida called it an “existential threat.”

Proponents of the toll road say it would spur development in rural Florida. But those rural areas, environmentalists say, offer crucial habitat for animals like the panther. Committees studying different segments of the road project suggested the state avoid environmentally sensitive areas.

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“It really would open up the spine of Florida,” said Lopez, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Frankly there’s no additional space for the panther to go. ... Each panther needs a ton of habitat to hunt and reproduce successfully.”

Some nature advocates say they are skeptical of the idea that more panther deaths in the past have been a sign of a growing population. They wonder if lower death numbers in 2020 might show what would happen with fewer drivers in panther territory. People, they say, could have stayed at home more during the pandemic.

Bradley Cornell, a Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon Florida, said panther deaths are a reminder of the importance of preserving conservation land and big ranches as habitat in the middle of the state where the animals could expand.

“Are we going to keep them as a zoo species that we have to highly manage in this confined area of Southwest Florida?”