By Jessie L. Bonner
Monday, April 2, 2007
A 2-year-old panther became the eighth to die this year after being plowed over on Interstate 75 in south Lee County late last week.
The animal was found just north of the Corkscrew Road interchange and is the fifth panther to be killed by a vehicle during the past month, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The death marks yet another chapter in the decline of one of the most endangered species on the planet, with only 80 to 100 Florida panthers believed left.
The eighth panther killed this year was found on Friday, the day after Fish and Wildlife officials scraped the seventh panther to die this year off U.S. 41 outside Everglades City. That cat was hit so hard, experts could barely determine its sex from the remains, said Darrell Land, a panther biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Naples.
"He was pretty messed up," Land said. "He may have been '18-wheeled.'"
Florida panther populations that once stretched as far north as Arkansas are now found only in Southwest and Central Florida, mostly in the rural regions south of the Caloosahatchee River.
"This is really the last wilderness left in the eastern United States," Land said. "It's still one of the wildest areas east of the Mississippi."
The panther found Friday was killed in a rapidly growing region of south Lee County, a place where mega malls and shopping centers seem to pop up overnight.
"They're just exploring new territory," Land said. "This guy was probably just looking for a place to call home."
In the past, panthers wearing radio collars have been tracked crossing Interstate 75 and traveling as far west as Fort Myers before turning around and heading back toward the inland, more rural territories the animals are accustomed to, Land said.
Vehicles are the leading cause of death among panthers. In addition to the five panthers killed this year by vehicles, two panthers died during fights with other panthers and one passed away from unknown causes.
Younger panthers tend to be more exploratory, making them more prone to account for panther deaths, Land said.
"They seem to be the most vulnerable," he said.
The panther has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967.
Eight female panthers from Texas were brought in during the early 1990s to help replenish the population, but the increase hasn't been without genetic defects, such as kinked tails and testicular defects in the male panthers.
"It was never expected to be a one-time fix," Land said of the restoration project put in place more than a decade ago. "The real problem is we're still managing a very small population."
While state wildlife officials have noticed an increase in panther deaths, they attribute this mostly to the increased population coupled with the ongoing development of Southwest Florida.
In others words, they're not as panicked as they would have been if the population were still dwindling, Land said.
"Twenty years ago we would have been scared to death," he said. "But then we only had 20 to 30 panthers."
The carcass of the panther found in Estero on Friday is in a freezer at the conservation commission office in Naples and will be transferred to a lab in Gainesville for further analysis. The skeletal remains are to be displayed at the Florida Museum of Natural History.