Today, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a non-profit advocacy organization, reported that 2014 was a very bad year for the Florida panther. During this past year 30 members of that endangered species were killed with more than a third of those deaths females of kitten-bearing age.
According to PEER, panther mortality this year could represent as much as one-fourth of the entire population, with the majority of those deaths (27) occurring in three counties (Collier, Lee and Hendry), and 17 of the total mortalities the result of motor vehicle accidents.
"The management of the Florida panther is biology by body count," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission figures show only 32 kittens born this year, but the survival rate of panther kittens is low with only 50 percent expected to survive to dispersal-age. 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."
Despite being protected as an endangered species by the Federal government for the past 40-years, the Florida panther is clinging to survival with a population that is thought to number somewhere between 100 to 160 adult animals living on a habitat area in southwest Florida that represents just five percent of its original range.
While the Florida panther is increasingly imperiled by habitat loss, vehicle collisions, and loss of genetic diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has yet to designate critical habitat to protect what little viable habitat area remains for the iconic cat. Despite agreement by biologists that the species faces a high likelihood of extinction in the absence of protections for its remaining habitat, FWS continues to approve new roads and other development in the heart of panther country.
In the period from 1984 to 2009, FWS approved 127 developments in areas that it deemed could adversely affect the panther. Those projects destroyed nearly 100,000 acres of panther habitat while less than 42,000 acres were "preserved" either on or offsite of the projects. It is unclear how many of those preserved acres actually benefit the panther.
The Florida panther's survival appears to depend on the protection of remaining undeveloped lands throughout Florida, as well as the eventual natural migration beyond the state's confining borders.
Unfortunately, a large portion of that habitat is already slated for development, and developers might also receive authorization to "take"-harass, harm, or kill-any panther or other protected species as they modify, pave over, and develop their habitat.
In addition, Florida's neighbors have not shown any willingness to allow the expansion of the Florida panther into their states.
According to Jeff Ruch, "In South Florida, the panther literally is a speed bump to sprawling development. 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."