Florida Drivers' Need for Speed Is Wiping Out the Critically Endangered Panther

As much as 20 percent of the state's population of big cats have died in car collisions this year.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 19, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

It's shaping up to be a deadly year for the critically endangered Florida panther. With the death of a female last Thursday, 19 of the big cats have been killed by motorists so far in 2014—that’s as much as 20 percent of the surviving panther population.

That mortality rate ties the previous record set in 2012, and there’s still several weeks to go before year’s end.

All told, 26 Florida panthers have been killed so far this year. In addition to collisions with cars, two deaths were attributed to "intraspecific aggression"—male Florida panthers are extremely territorial and will fight each other to the death. One male died of pneumonia, while a female died following a ruptured uterus. The causes of the remaining deaths remain unknown. Only 20 panthers were killed last year, 15 by vehicles. (Meanwhile, Florida developers are pressing to cut protections for the endangered manatee.)

No one knows exactly how many Florida panthers remain, but biologists estimate the population at between 100 and 180 animals.

The panther killed last week was a three- to four-year-old female, known only as UCFP223. She died on County Line Road in Collier County after being run over by an unknown car or truck. Collier Country was the setting for the majority of vehicle-related deaths, including those of two four-month-old cubs killed in a single incident in August.

The news of the 19th death "is a big blow," said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who works on panther issues. Although Florida panthers have increased their population slightly over the past few years, she said "it's still a very tiny number. It's a tragedy for the population to lose a reproductive female."

Still, Fleming said she was not surprised that we have lost so many panthers this year.

"It's a matter of more people and more panthers," she said. "The economy is getting better and we're seeing development increasing, new permits and road expansion."

She called habitat destruction and fragmentation the greatest threats to panther survival.

The number of vehicle-related deaths has a long-term effect on panthers. Right now the animals are concentrated in the southern half of the state, below the Caloosahatchee River. To expand their population, they also need to move north and expand their habitat.

Young panthers disperse from their mothers into new territories, and southern territories are only available because so many panthers have become roadkill. If fewer big cats were being killed the panthers would have cause to disperse further. "With this many killed by cars each year, it doesn't put enough pressure on the population to put it on the edge to cross over the river," Fleming said.

Will 2014 end up being a record year for panther deaths? Fleming said she hopes that UCFP223 will be the last vehicle mortality for the year, but history indicates that this may not be the case. Every year since 2009, between one and four panthers were killed by cars between Thanksgiving and New Year's. That doesn't bode well for the end of 2014 unless Florida drivers start braking for panthers.