WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 4, 2017 – The year that just concluded tied for the deadliest on record for the endangered population of Florida panthers, according to official figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In 2016, 42 Florida panthers died in the wild, matching the then-record 2015 total. In 2014, another 31 big cats were killed – each an all-time high in the last three years.
In addition, 2016 also set a new record for the number of panthers killed in collisions with motor vehicles – 32 or more than 80% of all panther mortality. In 2015, a then record 30 panthers perished in vehicular accidents, which in turn broke the 2014 record of 25 panther deaths.
“These figures sound the death knell for a sustainable Florida panther population in the wild,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER which unsuccessfully sued to win critical habitat designation for the Florida panther. “Without sufficient protected habitat, there is no viable recovery for this alpha-predator.”
North American cougars once had the broadest distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western hemisphere. Today, the only population east of the Mississippi, the Florida panther, is confined to a small fragment of their former range in southwest Florida. The latest mortality numbers reflect this cramped vestigial habitat – more than 70% of last year’s deaths occurred in just two counties: Collier and Lee.
Even this small habitat fragment is shrinking. Growing human population and sprawling development in south Florida mean less panther habitat and more fatal interactions with humans – and their cars. Without access to more habitat, the long-term prognosis for the recovery of the Florida panther is bleak.
The desperate plight of the panther is underlined by one ray of hope – a female panther has managed to cross the Caloosahatchee River into new range. It remains to be seen whether other cats can follow or whether this lone female will survive, let alone find a mate with which to reproduce.
“The fate of the Florida panthers rests with a dismally small and diminishing number of animals,” added Ruch, noting that the incoming President is himself a Florida real estate developer. “There are currently no coherent efforts at either the state or federal level to save the Florida panther from extinction, and we are unlikely to see one on the horizon.”
At the same time, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates that there are between 100 and 180 animals in the wild –the same estimate FWC has displayed for years, without any updates. Nor does this static estimate reflect the high and growing rate of panther mortality, which in just the last two years alone could represent more than half the remaining population. In addition, FWC figures show fewer panther kittens in 2016 (a total of 14) in numbers that come nowhere close to matching deaths. The latest FWC report calls for more research on panther population dynamics.