It’s been a record year for Florida panther deaths, with the 40th death coming yesterday. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission say the remains of a one-year-old male panther were found after it was hit by a vehicle in Collier County, Florida. The remains are being taken to a Gainesville facility for an autopsy. So far, 29 panther deaths this year have resulted from vehicle strikes. Both numbers are record highs for panther deaths.
Reports indicate that this uptick of deaths on Florida roads may be due to increasing development into their territory. Panthers are running out of room to survive in their natural habitat, especially in southwest Florida. The opposing view is that the panther population is increasing, thus leading to more sightings and deadly interactions such as these. FWC Commissioners are quick to take credit for what they perceive to be success in their conservation efforts.
There are seven members of the FWC, with Commissioners who are also ranchers and developers. You can read their bios here. Some claim that there are more panthers than the 100-180 estimated to roam the region south of the Caloosahatchee River. None of the Commissioners are scientists. The FWC base their claim on the number of their livestock which have been attacked, and lay many of those attacks at the feet of the panthers, although this year there were fewer such attacks reported than last year. Deer hunters are also complaining, stating there are fewer deer for them to kill. They are asking for a scaling back of breeding populations, along with allowing ‘nuisance panthers’ to be shot.
This year, FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy, who owns a 9,300-acre cattle ranch near the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Immokalee, helped draft a policy statement for the state, calling for Florida to abandon efforts to establish additional panther populations. Priddy drafted the policy without including input from biologists who have been working diligently on the recovery of the panthers. After much debate and input from activists, the FWC stepped back from that proposal. In the dissenting vote, Commissioner Ron Bergeron objected to Commissioner Priddy’s proposal.
But the future of the panther is in no way assured. Developers have spent more than a decade trying to take 177,000 acres of land adjacent to the Panther Refuge. They envision a town in the heart of the panther’s domain, with 10,000 residential homes built in the next 15-20 years, on 4,000 acres of panther habitat. The first 4,000 homes in ‘Big Cypress‘ as the development was originally called, may be made available in 2018. That plan is still moving forward with a new name, Rural Lands West.
None of this is welcome news to environmentalists, animal advocates or scientists. The current federal panther recovery plan says there must be three separate populations of 240 individuals before the animal can be removed from the Endangered Species list. Two populations of 240 would be required to lower panthers from endangered to threatened.
Panthers are Florida’s official state animal, living almost exclusively south of Lake Okeechobee, and are also one of the most endangered animals. Panther.net lists only six litters of panthers born in 2015; 11 males and four females have been recorded. If you do the math, with the death of 40 in just one year, the claim that the Florida panther population is on the increase simply cannot be justified. Earlier this year, Frank Jackalone, Florida Staff Director of the Sierra Club, stated, “The (FWC) is heavily weighted toward developers, and it’s carrying out Rick Scott’s plan to develop the center of the state.”