Record Florida Panther Mortality in 2014
50% Increase over Prior Year; More Than a Third Females of Kitten-Bearing Age
Washington, DC — 2014 was the deadliest year on record for the endangered population of Florida panthers, according to official figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This year has seen 30 Florida panther deaths in the wild, exceeding the previous record of 27 of the large cats killed in 2012. The majority of this mortality results from collisions with motor vehicles.
The Florida panther is the only known population of North American cougar east of the Mississippi. While cougars once had the broadest distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western hemisphere, Florida panthers today are confined to only a small fragment of their former range in southwest Florida. The latest mortality numbers reflect this cramped vestigial habitat – 27 of 30 deaths occurred in just three counties (Collier, Lee and Hendry) and the majority of which (17) were caused by vehicles.
Panther mortality this year could represent as much as one-fourth of the entire population, which the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates is between 100 and 180 animals. The reason for this wide variation is that the number of cats monitored through radio collars has steadily declined.
Radio telemetry is the principal means of tracking elusive panthers, as well as determining habitat needs and outmigration of cats seeking new territory. Of the 30 panthers that died this year in the wild, only 7 had radio collars. The latest FWC reports only 16 females are currently radio-tracked, and the agency collared only ten cats in the year prior to July 2014.
“The management of the Florida panther is biology by body count,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that FWC figures also show 32 kittens born this year, but the survival rate of panther kittens is low. This means that panther deaths are likely to exceed replacement from new litters. “The true condition of the Florida panther today remains what biologists call a ‘SWAG’– a scientific wild-ass guess.”
The Florida panther has been listed as an endangered species for more than 40 years. The long-term prognosis for the recovery of the Florida panther is bleak, however, largely because the available habitat will continue to shrink, aggravated by increasing penetration by motor vehicles:
- Florida continues to approve sprawling new developments carving apart panther country;
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has resisted legal efforts to force it to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther, as has been designated in recovery plans for hundreds of other species; and
- Prime panther areas, such as the vast Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Lands, are being opened up to off-road vehicle traffic.
“In South Florida, the panther literally is a speed bump to sprawling development,” Ruch added. “Many believe we have already reached the tipping point where a viable population of Florida panther can no longer exist in the wild and the future of this alpha-predator is as a zoo species.”