* Posted December 29, 2009 at 2:30 p.m.
Naples — Florida panthers are closing out 2009 with an unfortunate distinction.
Just three days before the end of the year, state wildlife officials have announced that a 16th panther died in a vehicle collision — making this the deadliest year on record for panthers on the roadways.
The female panther was found dead Tuesday on S.R. 29 just south of Interstate 75 on the shoulder of the northbound lane. That portion of roadway did not have any fencing, according to a notice from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The panther, estimated at 4 years old, weighed 80 pounds, had no microchip, and no kink or cowlick — both signs of inbreeding. The carcass, which had been scavenged by other wildlife, will be stored for an eventual necropsy, but no cause of definitive death has been announced yet.
The death is also the third in Collier County in as many weeks, with a 15th panther found dead after a vehicle collision Dec. 23, 14 miles east of I-75 on Corkscrew Road, which brought panther roadkills to the same record set in 2007. That panther, a male, was estimated to be 3 years old and weighed 148 pounds, but did not have a tracking collar or microchip identification.
The week before, a 14th panther was found dead Dec. 18 on I-75.
"Certainly, it is a sad milestone," Ferraro said. "We did put out a news release last week to encourage folks to pay attention to those panther speed zones. We’re asking folks to slow down and obey the posted speed limit, and remember that this is an endangered species and there are only 100 left in the wild."
In the past 20 years, the Florida panther population has been on the rebound from 30 cats living in the wild, though panther roadkill deaths have also steadily increased in the past decade.
In all, 23 Florida panthers have died in the wild in 2009. Three deaths were ruled the result of fights with other panthers, two causes of death remain unknown, one was shot in Big Cypress Mitigation Bank, and two deaths, including a vehicle death, remain under investigation. That one vehicle death is being investigated because officials determined the head of that panther had been removed after it died.
Connect with reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org