Urban Sprawl Kills Endangered Florida Panthers

Marc Criffield clutches a small receiver in his hand and peers through the window of a single-engine Cessna. Suddenly, the device lets out an electric chirp. A second later, another chirp, and then another. Criffield has pinpointed FP197, a burly 4-and-a-half-year-old panther in the prime of its life. But something is wrong.

Instead of showing the endangered panther on the prowl, the signal is stationary. The cat might be sleeping through the sticky July heat, or the locator might be broken. But in his decades of tracking animals — from wolves along the Mexican border to foxes in the Great Plains — the 40-year-old scientist has learned to trust his gut.

"Knowing that he's a male with other males around that area, you get that sneaking suspicion something isn't right," Criffield says.

Courtesy of FWC

He has good reason to feel unsettled: This year has already been brutal for Florida's tiny panther population. By the end of June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recorded 14 deaths. If panther corpses keep piling up at that rate, it'll be the deadliest 12 months since detailed record-keeping began in 1981.

Even worse, a large percentage of those deaths — 50 percent this year and 54 percent between 2000 and 2011 — are due to an all-too-predictable cause: collisions with Florida drivers. As development encroaches farther into panther territory, experts worry that 2012 is a harbinger of even deadlier years to come. That hasn't stopped Gov. Rick Scott from reviving a controversial highway corridor plan and scaling back Florida's long-standing growth management laws.

"By far the single greatest threat to their survival is development and the degradation and fragmentation of habitat that accompanies it," says Elizabeth Fleming, a Florida representative for environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

The iconic Florida panther, a subspecies of the more common American cougar, once wandered across eight states, from Texas to Arkansas to South Carolina. For millions of years, they evolved into remarkable predators. But their rapid decline began with the first white settlers, who were keen to kill any beasts threatening farmers. In 1887, the state put a $5 bounty on panther scalps, starting a hunting bonanza.

The real death knell, though, came not from guns but street pavers colonizing huge swaths of Florida in the post-World War II suburban boom. In 1967, panthers were placed on a federal endangered species list; some experts debated whether any of the big cats were left in the wild.

By the early '90s, scientists had found and tracked 30 survivors. The tiny population suffered rampant inbreeding, spurring heart problems and reproductive issues, so in 1995, biologists imported eight female cougars from Texas to diversify the gene pool. The plan helped, but almost 20 years later, the population is still minuscule — between 100 to 160 — clustered mostly in rural counties such as Collier, Lee, and Hendry.

Criffield has always been fascinated by hard-luck animals like the Florida panther. Raised in north Texas, he immersed himself in rugged wilderness at a young age. After graduating with degrees in genetics and zoology from Texas A&M, he bounced around, looking for his niche. He worked with coyotes, bears, and bats before heading to Oklahoma State University for a master's degree and research on local foxes.

After grad school, Criffield went to New Mexico to track endangered Mexican wolves before leaving five years ago for an FWC job in the Panhandle. At first, the gig was dull; he spent days fielding calls about trapping permits and bear sightings. So when he got an opportunity to move downstate and work with the elusive panther, Criffield jumped.

"I love the panther work," he says. "It has a purpose and I feel like I'm contributing to the greater good."

He quickly learned that tracking the elusive creatures is no easy task. It starts with a hunt for telltale signs like paw prints or fresh dung. Then a trained hound sniffs down the cat and forces it up a tree, where it's shot with a tranquilizer as FWC workers scurry below with a net the size of a bed sheet. If the panther doesn't drop, someone has to climb the tree and toss down the cat, which weighs up to 160 pounds. Vets and biologists then check its vitals, attach a collar and transponder, and tattoo its ear.

It sometimes takes weeks to find a single animal. "We usually average about a panther a week," Criffield says. "But we could find one in one week and then not find any for weeks. It's real sporadic."

Tough as it is, tracking is crucial for keeping an accurate population count. Lately, those numbers have been harrowing.

In 11 years, between 2000 and 2011, the FWC recorded 230 panther deaths. Vehicles were the leading cause by a wide margin, killing at least 126. But in just the past six months, from January through June, FWC has already documented 14 dead panthers, half of which were killed by cars.

While 2012 is on pace to be the worst on record, Criffield notes that panther deaths can occur in spurts. "Sometimes three dead panthers can be recovered in a week and then another won't be reported for three months," he says.

Either way, activists argue there's a direct link between those deaths and Florida's ever-expanding push into panther habitat. Many point to Ave Maria — the Catholic college built in 2005 smack in the middle of cat territory — and the outskirts of Naples as the worst offenders.

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People keep encroaching on their land. Where are these animals supposed to go?  Do we really need more homes?  Lord knows there are plenty of empty ones.