A rebound in the number of endangered panthers in Florida has created another problem for wildlife managers: an increasing number of road kills.
So far this year, a record 30 Florida panthers have been killed by vehicles, marking a new low in the decades-long struggle to save the tawny cat from extinction.
Most of the deaths were caused by vehicles colliding with panthers as they crossed roads in Collier and Hendry counties in Southwest Florida, where the big cats are concentrated in a fraction of their historic range.
This year also marked a record number of calves, goats, sheep, ponies and pets killed by panthers.
Both casualties indicate just how tricky one of the country’s more complicated endangered species rescue missions has become. To find new hunting grounds, the cats need to navigate highways, ranch lands and backyards — places where top predators come into increasing conflict with humans.
“It’s a challenge in a state like Florida, which is the third or fourth most populous in the country,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy chief of species and habitat conservation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “That does not come without a price.”
Florida panthers once roamed from Louisiana south. But by the 1990s, they teetered on the brink of extinction. Just 20 to 30 remained, far too few to survive. So in 1995, the state proposed a drastic experiment and imported eight Texas female cougars to mate with Florida male panthers. The plan worked, with five of the females giving birth to 20 kittens. Today, state wildlife officials estimate there are between 100 and 180 panthers.
But while the panthers were mounting a mini comeback, thousands of acres of upland pine rocklands and hardwood hammocks in Collier and Hendry counties where the cats live came under development, squeezing the cats into shrinking habitats.
“For this population to continue to grow, it’s got to go northward,” said Elizabeth Fleming, a Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “And that’s one of the effects of all these animals being run over. It’s keeping them from expanding by limiting their numbers.”
Feeding on domesticated animals and gobbling up deer and hogs hunters prize has also caused problems.
State wildlife conservation commissioner Leisa Priddy, whose family started ranching in Hendry County in the 1940s, said her ranch loses about 25 calves a year, at a value of about $1,500 each. This year, a University of Florida study found that panthers were indeed killing calves more than the coyotes, bears and vultures that also preyed on herds.
“People say you should have known panthers were there. But when we decided to ranch here, there weren’t panthers,” she said.
Earlier this year, state and federal wildlife officials met with environmentalists, ranchers and hunters to try to better address concerns and are now putting together a working group to come up with recommendations, Frohlich said. The state is also crafting better management measures and will offer to pay ranchers who conserve habitat for panthers.
The state is also looking at improving crossings with tunnels and fences, Frohlich said, although Fleming argued much more needs to be done.
“We know where a lot of those chronic road segments are and we need to find funding and work with transportation agencies,” she said.
Officials have also long considered establishing a second population. But that, too, is tricky because the federally protected panthers require land restrictions that land owners may oppose.
“They’re not being welcomed with open arms anywhere else, even in other states,” Priddy said.
But Fleming said panthers would willingly make the move. In 2008, a Florida panther wound up in Georgia, only to be shot dead by a hunter.
“So it is possible,” she said. “The biggest barrier right now could be social intolerance.”