ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - At least 20 Florida panthers have died in 2020, a toll that appears to be on track to finish lower than in previous years.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that almost all of the panther deaths were caused by people. One panther was, however, killed by another panther.
Another was hit by a train and someone mutilated yet another panther and left its remains on a roadside near Immokalee.
Every other panther death this year was caused by cars, wildlife officials said.
In 2019, the state recorded 27 panther deaths, while 2018 saw 30 big cat deaths.
Researchers are also focused on a mysterious neurological disorder in panthers, which is visible in animals hobbled by weak back legs.
"We’re heading toward a habitat that’s just too small to sustain a big cat," said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
Advocates are fighting a proposed toll road expansion, which could bring a new highway near panther habitat. The leader of The Nature Conservancy in Florida called it an "existential threat."
Proponents say the toll road would spur development in rural Florida, while environmentalists said those areas offer crucial habitat for animals like the panther.
FWC biologists say they gain valuable information by examining panther remains. Injured or dead panthers can be reported to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
Florida panthers are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Intentionally killing a Florida panther is punishable by up to one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Florida panthers once roamed the entire Southeast, but now their habitat mostly is confined to a small region of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. Up to 230 Florida panthers remain in the wild.