Scott's administration has done little to help that trend. In June 2011, he approved sweeping changes to a long-standing growth management system, making it easier for developers to push into once-protected areas. Now, his Department of Transportation wants to ram the 120-mile Heartland Parkway through the middle of the state, from Polk County to Naples. Another plan calls for a massive interchange at I-75 and Everglades Boulevard, just down the road from a protected panther habitat. More car deaths are inevitable, activists say.

"Panthers evolved to be one of the fastest animals out there. The idea that a car is faster than them just doesn't fit within their hardwiring," says Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

Cars aren't the only deadly threat from sprawl, though. Territorial beefs erupt among the cats as they compete in tighter spaces. Each panther is a loner, preferring 200 miles to itself. When two males cross, it's likely to get ugly. Since 2000, at least 39 panthers have killed each other.

Courtesy of FWC

A host of other hazards also endanger the creatures. A wildfire in 2011 killed four cubs, for instance, and another died of mercury poisoning. A few brazen hunters even take shots at the animals. In July, Todd Benfield, a 45-year-old man from Naples, was sentenced to 60 days of house arrest and fined $5,000 for shooting one with a bow.

But those perils aren't preventable, according to experts like Criffield. Instead, they focus on an ultimate goal: establishing three separate populations of at least 240 cats, with many north of the Caloosahatchee River, cutting from Lake Okeechobee across to Fort Myers.

"That's the only way we can expand the population to a point where they can be removed from the endangered species list," Criffield says.

That's easier said than done. There hasn't been a female panther seen north of the Ca­l­oos­a­hatchee since 1973. Conservationists are fighting to secure reserves along the river, including 1,270 acres in Glades County purchased in May by the Nature Conservancy.

In the meantime, Criffield and his colleagues keep a close eye on the cats. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, FWC charters a small plane to locate the 20 or so panthers fitted with tracking collars, including FP197.

Criffield has particularly high hopes for the male cat — it's big, young, and strong, the kind of animal that could survive a trek north of the Caloosahatchee. That's why, as the Cessna hums through the air this past July 18, he's so worried by the errant signal from FP197's collar.

After the plane lands at Naples Municipal Airport, Criffield loads up an ATV and heads toward the coordinates. As he rolls through the grass, his stomach drops: He spots the cat's tawny fur, thrown into stark relief against the dense brush.

FP197 is dead.

This time, there are no obvious signs of what killed it. There's no evidence of a bloody fight, no bullet holes, and no mangled flesh from a car accident. Criffield rolls out a tarp and straps the 15th dead panther of 2012 to the back of his ATV. He'll have to ship the corpse to Gainesville for a necropsy to figure out the cause of death.

"It's all scientifically based, and anything we get is data, good or bad," Criffield says, trying to remain objective.

Then his voice wavers. "But yeah, I was bummed to [pull] 197 out of the woods... You remember things about these cats."

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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.