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Deaths of two endangered Florida panthers shatter state record

Published Dec. 12, 2012

About 9 p.m. Sunday, a truck driver ran over a Florida panther on State Road 520 in Orange County and tied two records at once.

That dead panther, which was not wearing one of the state's radio tracking collars, brought to 25 the total number of panthers found dead this year, tying the all-time record set in 2007 and 2009, according to Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Sunday's death also marked the 17th panther killed by a vehicle, tying the record for road kills that was also set in 2009, he said.

Then, on Tuesday, biologists at the Big Cypress National Preserve found a female panther dead a short distance from the Tamiami Trail. That 26th dead panther, which had been wearing a radio collar, broke the old record.

The cause of death of the female panther is still under investigation, according to Deborah Jansen, Big Cypress' panther biologist. However, that may not be the end of it.

"She was rearing possibly 2 kittens aged 9 months," Jansen reported in an email. "Trail cameras were placed at the site to determine whether the kittens were in the area. It is unlikely at that age that they will survive on their own."

The major cause of death for panthers — the state animal and endangered species — is being run over by vehicles. State biologists have frequently cited the steady increase in panther road kills as a positive sign for the species, proof that there are more panthers than there used to be.

In the 1980s the panther population dwindled to about 30, and scientists feared genetic defects from inbreeding would doom the species to extinction. In 1995, a bold experiment brought female Texas cougars to Florida to replenish the gene pool and led to a boom in the population.

Nearly all of the state's estimated 100 to 160 panthers live in South Florida, but young males tend to roam much farther than the females as they look for territory to call their own. They cross the Caloosahatchee River and roam for hundreds of miles, while the closest a female has ever been documented near the river is 3 miles from its banks.

"Once every couple of years, we have a male that's hit on a road somewhere north of the river," Onorato said. "They are the roaming sex."

In 2003, for instance, a male panther was run over on Interstate 4 in Seffner, and in 2005 one was run over on Interstate 95 near St. Augustine.

On Sunday, after the male panther was flattened by a double semitrailer truck in Orange County, the driver stopped to pull the carcass off the highway. Before he could get to it, it was run over by other vehicles.

"It was pretty mangled," Onorato said.

As a result, it took an examination called a necropsy by a veterinarian in Gainesville to determine that the dead panther was a male, about 3 years old.

The Orange County panther death highlights one of the perils facing the panther's future.

Scientists say the rebounding Florida panther has filled nearly all the available habitat in South Florida, so in September state wildlife officials told their staff to start working on expanding the population into Central Florida. The first step: meet with big landowners and community groups to prepare them for what life will be like with the state's biggest predator again prowling nearby.

But unlike in South Florida, where several highways now feature underpasses to accommodate safe travels by wildlife, Central Florida has a downside for the wide-ranging panthers.

"There's just a lot of challenges up there with crossing roads," Onorato said.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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