Despite the appearance of a mysterious illness afflicting Florida’s panthers, cars and trucks remained the state animal’s worst enemies this year.
Twenty-six of the big cats have died so far in 2019, according to state records. All but four were struck on Florida’s highways.
The good news is that the 22 killed on roadways are a decline from last year, when 26 of the 29 panthers that were found dead by state biologists were killed by cars or trucks. In 2017 the number of roadkill deaths was 25, while the total number of deaths was 30.
The all-time record for the number of panthers that were struck and killed by vehicles is 34, set in 2016. That year 42 panthers died from all causes, a record that also still stands.
To South Florida Wildlands Association executive director Matthew Schwartz, new development and new roads will continue claiming panthers in 2020 and beyond, especially if a controversial new toll road is built through the area where most panthers live. An email from a federal panther expert said the road, which is proposed to run from Polk to Collier counties and has been referred to as the Heartland Parkway, would nudge panthers toward extinction.
“That road is going right through the heart of panther habitat,” said Schwartz, an environmental activist.
Of the panthers that died in 2019 from something other than being run over, state scientists could not determine a cause of death for one. Two more were killed by other panthers, which used to be the most common cause of death.
One female panther was euthanized by state biologists because it suffered from a mysterious ailment that has left some panthers and bobcats unable to walk. Scientists recently gave the condition a name — “feline leukomyelopathy” — but admit that it’s just so they have something to call it when they’re talking about it. They still don’t know what causes it or whether it’s a virus, a neurological condition or the result of poisoning.
The euthanized panther had a pair of kittens. They are now being raised at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and so far show no signs of similar impairment.
State biologists say their data on the number of panther deaths may be off, and there is no way of knowing the real number.
For four decades, biologists learned about panthers by chasing them down with a pack of dogs, shooting them with a tranquilizer dart and putting radio-transmitting collars around their necks. It’s a technique that some biologists jokingly called “collar and foller,” because once the collar is attached, they spend three days a week flying over panther habitat, following the cat via the radio signals.
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The radio collars could alert biologists with a “mortality signal” if the panther was killed because it would stop moving.
But in recent years biologists have concluded that it’s better to track panthers by using cameras that are set off with a motion sensor. They have stopped putting new collars on the cats.
“Since only a fraction of the panther population is radio-collared we do not know what the total mortalities were in 2019,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Generally panthers are regarded as an unlikely success story. The number of endangered cats had dwindled to fewer than 30 by 1995. They suffered from genetic defects caused by inbreeding.
State officials, desperate to keep them from going extinct, paid an expert tracker to catch eight female cougars in Texas and fly them to Florida to breed with the remaining male panthers. Five of the eight produced healthy kittens, and now about 200 or so panthers roam what’s left of Florida’s wilderness.
But unless state and federal officials get a handle on development in that area, Schwartz said, “their short-term prognosis is bleak.”