Officials estimate that there are fewer than 200 Florida panthers roaming the state. Although the method of counting is imprecise, the big cat is -- by any measure -- far from getting off the endangered species list. When one gets hit by a car and killed, it's a pretty big deal.
The Associated Press reported last night that a 1-year-old uncollared female was squashed on the border of Lee and Collier counties. What's actually kind of shocking is that it's the 12th to have been run over this year so far. That could be as much as 10 percent of the entire population, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's guesses. About a week ago, the agency announced that there were between 100 and 180 left. (Before, there were supposed to be 100 to 160.)
In Collier County alone, more than $8 million has been spent on building underpasses and culverts for the panthers to use, according to a spokeswoman at the Florida Department of Transportation. It's unclear, though, how often or why a wild cat would use an artificial concrete tunnel to cross the street.
When the FWC announced the new panther numbers, it also mentioned that the population had reached carrying capacity in South Florida. David Onorato, a panther biologist, says that if there were any panther "action" in other parts of the state, a female or a kitten would be hit by a car there. The fact that we haven't seen one run over in Central or Northern Florida means there aren't really cats there, basically. But that's something the agency wants -- or actually, needs -- to change.
"The cookie's crumbling in terms of habitat," Onorato says. "We need a female to get the gumption to cross the Caloosahatchee [River]."
But if Byron Maharrey is to be believed, panther territory extends as far north as Lake Kissimmee. Back in April, the turkey hunter claimed to be the first-ever victim of a panther attack. But while the FWC uses run-over cats as a metric to measure the population, it isn't factoring Maharrey's testimony into its estimates.
"We heard the hunter's story, and we saw the pictures," Onorato says. "His story is that he was attacked by a panther. The evidence we were presented with didn't allow us to make that determination. If they wanted to do damage to you, they would. I think it would be pretty evident."
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