A panther takes a break on a felled tree in South Florida. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr
SARASOTA, Fla., Jan. 5 (UPI) -- After two panthers were killed on New Year's Even in Florida, the total number of panthers killed in 2014 rose to 33 -- a new record.
The two deaths only extended 2014's lead as the deadliest year for panthers in Florida's modern history; it had already earned the superlative in November when the 19th panther was killed by a car.
All of the recorded panther deaths happened as a result of vehicular collisions, researchers say. Conservation officials blame the rise in deaths on South Florida's ongoing development.
Cougars need several thousand acres of habitat to roam, hunt and mate. Increasingly, that habitat is being carved up and diminished by real estate developments.
"They are losing their critical habitat in South Florida ... more development, more people more subdivisions," Debbie Blanco, an environmental specialist at Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County, told local CBS affiliate WTSP.
Dave Onorato, a researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, agrees. As he explained to the Tampa Bay Times in an email, the uptick in cougar roadkill is a result of "a mixture of more panthers, more cars/people, and less habitat."
Thousands of panthers once roamed Florida, but as ranchers and farmers settled the state throughout the 1800s, the animals' numbers declined. By the 1990s, the animal was near extinction, with only 20 wild cougars in the state. The federal government granted the subspecies a place on the endangered species list.
Conservation efforts have helped the population rebound over the last two decades. There are now an estimated 160 cougars in Florida. But balancing population and economic growth with the needs of a vulnerable predator -- one that scientists say governs a vast ecosystem and food chain in South Florida -- has become increasingly difficult and controversial.
With panther attacks on livestock on the rise and with real estate interests continuing to condemn conservation regulations as unnecessarily strict -- suffocating economic growth -- defenders of the cougar looking to ensure their protection have their work cut out for them.