First it was a young male panther, no older than 3 years. He was hit and killed by a vehicle Nov. 6 in Hendry County.
Then it was a female, younger than 5. She was struck and killed — one day later — in Glades County.
And then came Sunday.
This time, in Hendry County again, it was a 3-year-old male on County Road 833 that succumbed to his injuries after being hit by a vehicle. Later that day, a 4-year-old male died in Collier County to the south. Also killed by a vehicle.
All told, four endangered Florida panthers were killed over the past week in one of the deadliest spans since September 2021, when three panthers were hit and killed on the same day.
One-third of this year’s panther death toll occurred over the single week, according to mortality data maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Twelve panthers have now died so far this year, all from vehicle strikes. That compares to 27 panther deaths last year (of which 92% died from vehicle strikes) and 27 in 2020 (77% dead from vehicles).
“Any road mortality is something that we don’t like to see for panthers,” said Dave Onorato, a panther research scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “A loss of any animal when you have an endangered species is obviously not beneficial toward promoting recovery.”
Onorato would know: He was the one who picked up both dead panthers on Sunday. He received the first call at 2 a.m. when he was in bed, he said. When he got home after recovering that panther and delivering it to a lab in Naples, he got a few hours of sleep before the second dead panther call came in about 8:30 p.m. from Collier County.
“It’s been busy,” Onorato told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview.
It’s hard to pinpoint a direct cause for why an uptick of road kills can occur back to back without doing a more detailed, long-term scientific analysis, Onorato said. One theory, though, is that there are more people on the roads during the winter season. That’s the case for the busy Immokalee Road, where the 12th panther of the year was hit and killed Sunday, Onorato said.
Vehicle collisions are the primary cause of death for Florida panthers, according to the Florida wildlife agency.
“Everybody’s in a rush, but just slow down your speed, especially at night and in panther range,” Onorato said. “You’re not going to lose that much time getting to your destination, and you potentially have the opportunity to avoid hitting a panther.”
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The agency estimates there are between 120 and 230 adult panthers left. Nearly 98% of panthers reside south of the Caloosahatchee River, but have been found as far north as Georgia in the past. In 2017, Florida wildlife biologists confirmed they found Florida panther kittens north of the Caloosahatchee for the first time in decades.
As Florida’s human population grows, viable habitat for panthers to thrive continues to shrink despite improved conservation strategies. One 2015 analysis by researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed the Florida panther is now restricted to less than 5% of its historic range, which once stretched throughout the Southeast.
The Florida panther has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967. Students voted in 1982 to name the Florida panther the state animal.
In December, a 2-year-old male panther was killed in Hillsborough County after a car struck the panther and its driver alerted authorities.
The animal survived on the side of the road for about 15 minutes before succumbing to internal injuries from the collision, according to Onorato. It was the first time a panther was killed in Hillsborough County since 2003.
“Today, the panther is recognized as Florida’s official state animal, but it is also one of the most endangered mammals in the country,” the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife writes about the animal on its website.
“Panthers are an umbrella species: protecting them and the vast, unspoiled, wild territory each one needs to survive — an average of 200 square miles for a single male — protects many other plants and animals that live there,” the nonprofit wrote.