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Florida panther killed on highway sets grisly new record

Researchers were encouraged earlier this year to see a female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in 40 years. But the news overall is bittersweet for 2016: A record number of the endangered mammals have been killed on roadways this year. [Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
Published Dec. 8, 2016

Somewhere out there in Florida is a driver who set a disturbing record Tuesday but may not know it.

The driver ran over a Florida panther, breaking the all-time record for how many of the state's endangered cats have been killed by vehicles.

The new record is now 31 — and the year is not quite over yet.

Biologists found the run-over carcass of a 2-year-old female panther on State Road 29 in Collier County, 2 miles north of County Road 858, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"She was breeding age," state panther team leader Darrell Land said Wednesday. "She could be pregnant."

That will be determined when a veterinarian examines the panther.

Tuesday's grisly discovery is not uncommon. In 2012, a new record for road kills was set with 19. Two years later, in 2014, that record was broken and a new one established at 25 kills. Last year, that record was shattered when 30 were killed.

State biologists say the rising roadkill numbers reflect the endangered species' new reality in Florida: There are more panthers now than there were two decades ago, but there are also more people living in the state, leaving the cats with less habitat for themselves.

In addition to setting a new record for road kills, Tuesday's fatality also brings the total number of panther deaths for the year to 39, just shy of last year's record of 42 panthers lost. The others either were killed by other panthers or died of other causes — for instance, by being orphaned before being old enough.

The state estimates that the current panther population is between 100 and 180 adults — a big jump from the mid 1990s, when there were no more than 30.

"We don't think this is such a watershed event that all our gains are going to be reversed," Land said.

The driver who killed the animal did not stick around to report it or explain what happened. Although no one has ever been prosecuted for running over one of the endangered cats, drivers who hit them rarely report it, much less wait for state officials to show up.

Panthers, sometimes known among Florida's settlers as "lions" and "catamounts," have been classified as endangered since the first endangered species list was created in 1967.

Schoolchildren picked the panther as the state animal in 1981, choosing it over the alligator, the manatee, the Key deer and a few others that got write-in votes, such as the dolphin and the baboon.

They've proven so popular that the cats have become the mascot for dozens of schools, the namesake of the National Hockey League team in South Florida and a figure on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, sold to pay for the wildlife commission's panther research.

Meanwhile, the real panthers have struggled to hang on to their slice of wilderness in southwest Florida, adjacent to the Naples-Fort Myers area, where some of the state's most rapid development has occurred.

The wide-ranging predators have lost habitat not just to suburban sprawl, but also to the creation of Florida Gulf Coast University and the town of Ave Maria.

In the mid '90s, because there were so few panthers left, the ones remaining suffered from genetic defects due to inbreeding, which prevented any captive-breeding program from succeeding. In a bold experiment, state biologists imported eight female Texas cougars — a close cousin of Florida's panthers — and turned them loose.

Five of the cougars mated with panthers and produced offspring free of genetic defects, which, in turn, pushed the population above 100 for the first time in decades.

However, because humans had moved into their territory, panthers began turning up in back yards more frequently, startling new residents. The suburban sprawl banished their usual prey of deer and hogs, so they began attacking cats, goats and other domestic animals found around the edges of suburbia, not to mention cattle on southwest Florida ranches.

One hopeful sign that appeared this year, though, is the discovery that a female panther had finally made it across the Caloosahatchee River. That river has been a barrier to travel by females since the 1970s, preventing expansion of the species' habitat. Finding a female there could signal a new frontier for the big cats to colonize.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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