At least 20 Florida panthers died in 2020, almost all of them because of people
At least 20 Florida panthers died in 2020, almost all of them from humans.
One was killed by another panther, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Another was hit by a train. One person deliberately killed a panther, leaving his body mutilated by the roadside near Immokalee.
Every other cat found dead that year was felled by a typical culprit: cars.
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The toll, which was updated from Thursday morning, appeared to be lower than in previous years - 27 in 2019 and 30 the year before.
"We usually say that the number of panther deaths and roadkills increases as the panther population increases," said Dave Onorato, panther biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Following this logic, a lower death rate could mean a bad turn for the endangered species. "It's plausible. We don't want to make too much of it yet, but it certainly gets our attention," said Onorato.
Florida panthers are the only puma that can still roam east of the Mississippi. Its former range in the American Southeast has shrunk to a corner of the lower Florida peninsula. Scientists estimate that between 120 and 230 adults live in the wild.
"For the most part, we think the population will remain stable and stable," Onorato said. "Signs don't seem to show it's increasing right now."
Environmentalists say the small numbers and variability in the population estimate mean the panther remains extremely endangered.
"The panther is like this patient lying in a bed in the intensive care unit and in stable condition," said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Florida Center for Biodiversity. "You will not send the panther home. ... Any wrong turn can lead to extinction."
An aggravating factor for the numbers for 2020 is that biologists have tracked down fewer panthers with radio collars than usual, according to Onorato. Your work was partially hindered by the pandemic. Scientists have documented coronavirus infections in large cats.
"We don't want to be responsible for the transmission (of a disease) to panthers," Onorato said.
One of the researchers' current focuses is a mysterious neurological disorder in panthers that is visible in animals that hobble from weak hind legs. Onorato says biologists do not know what causes leukomyelopathy in cats, which is known for short as "FLM". At least one animal showing signs of symptoms was recently spotted in the Big Cypress National Preserve, prompting researchers to position more cameras on public land to document the prevalence of the disorder.
The biggest challenge panthers face, say environmentalists, is the pressure on development.
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"We're approaching a habitat that's just too small to feed a large cat," said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
He and other proponents spent much of 2020 fighting a proposed toll road expansion that could bring a new highway close to the Panther habitat. The head of The Nature Conservancy in Florida called it an "existential threat".
Toll road proponents say it will fuel development in rural Florida. But these rural areas provide a crucial habitat for animals like the panther, according to environmentalists. Committees examining different segments of the road project suggested that the state avoid environmentally sensitive areas.
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"It would really open up Florida's spine," said Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity. "To be honest, there is no extra space for the panther. ... Every panther needs a lot of living space to hunt and reproduce successfully."
Some conservationists are skeptical of the notion that more panther deaths in the past were a sign of a growing population. They wonder if lower death rates in 2020 could show what would happen to fewer drivers in the Panther Territory. People could have stayed home more during the pandemic.
Bradley Cornell, a political contributor for Audubon Florida in southwest Florida, said panther deaths are a reminder of the importance of preserving wildlife sanctuaries and large ranches as a state-of-the-art habitat for the animals to expand.
"Are we going to keep them as a zoo species that we have to manage heavily in this limited area of southwest Florida?"
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