In the world of the endangered Florida panther, 2013 brought less mortality, a female panther successfully released back into the wild, and significant public participation in reporting panther sightings.
Twenty panther deaths were documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in the past year, compared with the 27 panthers that died in 2012. Vehicle strikes continue to be the primary cause of mortality, with 15 panthers dying last year because they were hit while crossing highways compared with 18 in 2012. The birth of 21 panther kittens also was documented in 2013.
A brother-and-sister pair of panthers, rescued as kittens in 2011 and raised at the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, was returned to the wild in 2013. The female, released in January in Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County, was documented last June to have given birth to a kitten. However the male, released last April in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area in Palm Beach County, died Jan. 4 due to unknown causes after being located a day earlier in a very lethargic state and then taken to a veterinary clinic. That was the second panther death recorded in 2014, after another panther was killed Jan. 2 due to a vehicle collision.
Meanwhile, a 9-month-old female panther kitten, found in Collier County last May with a fractured rear right leg probably caused by a vehicle collision, is recovering at White Oak and scheduled for release later this year.
Additionally, more than 1,100 panther sightings have been reported statewide since the FWC launched an online site in August 2012 enabling the public to report when and where they have seen a Florida panther or its tracks and upload photos: MyFWC.com/PantherSightings. Though only 5 percent of the sightings as of last August were verified as panthers, the FWC’s panther team considers public reports of panther sightings vital to the management of this species brought back from the brink of extinction.
“Forty years ago when the Endangered Species Act was passed, some people wondered if any panthers remained in Florida,” said Carol Knox, head of the FWC’s Imperiled Species Management Section. “Where once a sighting of a panther was almost unheard of, today, more and more Floridians and visitors are having the thrill of seeing and even photographing this elusive cat in the wild. This demonstrates the great progress Florida has made in conserving its panthers and the effectiveness of our partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and others that work with the FWC on these efforts.”
“Despite the mortalities in 2013, the FWC is confident the Florida panther population continues to expand,” Knox said.
As for vehicle-caused panther fatalities, “People who slow down and drive carefully in rural areas, especially where panther crossings and speed zones are identified, can make a difference,” Knox added. “It is especially important to slow down and keep a careful lookout at dawn or dusk, when panthers are most likely to be on the move.”
In 2013, three panther deaths also were attributed to territorial aggression among panthers. Another panther’s cause of death was undetermined, and one died of an apparent gunshot wound.
Floridians can help conserve panthers by purchasing the Protect the Panther license tag at BuyaPlate.com. Proceeds from the license plate support the FWC’s panther research and management efforts.
More about Florida panthers is available at FloridaPantherNet.org, including A guide to living with Florida panthers and the E-Z guide to identify panther tracks.