A critically endangered Florida panther was killed along a rural road in Hillsborough County, Florida, last week. While the loss is heartbreaking, biologists say there is an underlying positive message to the story.
The driver who struck the animal called authorities around 8 pm on Thursday, Dec. 8. It survived for nearly 15 minutes, but it eventually died from internal injuries.
A police officer took the panther to the state’s necropsy lab in Gainesville, and vets later determined that it was a healthy two-year-old male, which means it was vital for breeding.
The wildcat species nearly went extinct in the 1970s, when the population dropped to only 20. But with the help of the Endangered Species Act, they’ve managed to slightly rebound. Today, there are between 120 to 230 living in the wild.
Florida Panthers are still struggling to make a comeback, however. And wildlife officials warn that losing just one is devastating. But some say that there is a twist to the tragic story that people shouldn’t overlook.
“On one hand I’m sad we’ve lost another Florida panther,” wildlife photographer and member of the Path of the Panther Carlton Ward told FOX 13. “But it’s also a hopeful story that there’s enough connected wildlife habitat for a panther to make it that far north in Hillsborough County.”
Florida Panthers are Attempting to Establish New Territories
According to Dave Onorato, a panther research scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, nearly all panthers live south of the Caloosahatchee River, around 100 miles from where a vehicle killed a 2-year-old male. The last time officials saw proof that the wildcats had migrated that far north was in 2003 when another young male was struck by a car.
Biologists believe that the age and gender of the wildcats that were killed prove that the cats are attempting to move further into the state and establish new territories.
“They’re in the period when Mom kicks them out and they need to find a home range,” Onorato said to the Tampa Bay Times. “They’re not considered adults yet. [This panther] fits the profile: He was looking for a home range and looking for females. But breeding opportunities aren’t that common yet.”
Onorato said that there are many rural areas around Hillsborough County that are ideal for panthers. However, there are so many busy highways and densely populated spots on the path that very few can actually make it to their destination. This year researchers have recorded 26 panther deaths—24 died in a car collision.
So while there may be signs of growth, it’s not ideal for panthers to make the long trek north.
“They’re always showing up in strange places,” Onorato said. “The ones up north just roam and roam and roam. Typically the fate of those guys up there is to be found on the road.”