NAPLES, Fla. - Two dead Florida panthers within two days in two different parts of the state added up Tuesday to a record-breaking deadly year for the iconic endangered wildcats.
The one-two punch brings to 26 the total number of panthers found dead in Florida in 2012. That beats the previous record of 25 overall deaths, set in 2009. It also could tie the record 18 panthers killed on Florida roads in 2009.
The record-breaking year comes as scientists acknowledge panthers are running out of room in Southwest Florida, putting more panthers on a collision course with vehicles and forcing them to fight to the death with each other over dwindling territory.
“We can only wring our hands and wipe tears from our eyes so much and put that into action,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
That means wildlife underpasses and habitat protection, she said.
In an email Tuesday evening, Big Cypress National Preserve wildlife biologist Deborah Jansen reported that a cause of death hasn’t been determined for a female panther found Tuesday in the preserve. The email went on, though, to list the death as the year’s 18th roadkill although the state keeps the roadkill count at 17 for now.
The death, along a stretch of U.S. 41 East that is infamous as a roadkill hot spot, orphaned possibly two panther kittens, about 9 months old, Jansen reported. They likely will not survive for more than a few weeks without their mother, who had a radio-tracking collar to monitor her and her kittens.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers were staged Tuesday at the site to slow down motorists and possibly catch a glimpse of the kittens. Trail cameras also were set up, Jansen reported.
Tuesday’s discovery came after a Florida panther was found Sunday on the side of an Orange County expressway east of Orlando after being hit by a double tractor-trailer. The driver stopped to pull the carcass off the road but not before other vehicles ran it over.
The carcass was too badly mangled to determine either an age or sex, but biologists suspect it is a male based on its size, Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land said. A necropsy is pending.
If those suspicions hold out, it would dash hopes that the roadkill is the first evidence that a female panther had traveled north of the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County. Panther advocates have been watching for that milestone because it could indicate that panthers are expanding their breeding population out of South Florida.
“We are all on the edge of our seats,” Defenders of Wildlife Florida director Laurie Macdonald said.
Scientists say Florida panthers need to establish three breeding populations of between 200 and 250 cats each to boost their chances of survival to the point they could be taken off the endangered species list.
Florida panthers are estimated to number between 100 and 160 animals, mostly in Southwest Florida, up from fewer than 30 before a genetic restoration project that brought Texas cougars to Florida to breed with a sickly panther population.
Signs that panthers are moving north through Florida have increased in recent years. One panther wandered to central Georgia, where a hunter shot and killed it in 2008. Sunday’s roadkill was further confirmation that panthers are looking for more room to roam,
“We know panthers get up in that neck of the woods,” Land said.
Macdonald called it “inspiring” to learn that panthers continue to try to reclaim their territory in other parts of Florida, but she said that knowledge is tempered by the Orange County panther’s fate.
The death points out a need for road planners in other parts of the state to preserve habitat linkages that panthers will need for their population to continue to grow, Macdonald said.
“The state of Florida is panther country, not just South Florida,” she said.
The overall record fell Tuesday with a twist: Some Florida tallies had been counting a record 17 panther roadkills in 2009, but that count left off one panther found dead in an orange grove south of Immokalee, biologists said Tuesday. The cause of death had been the subject of a federal investigation that concluded that panther also had died after a vehicle hit it.
To report an injured or dead Florida panther, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or send a message to Tip@MyFWC.com.
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The rest of the week looks like our normal summer pattern with heat, humidity and high chances for afternoon downpours.