Urban Sprawl Kills Endangered Florida Panthers: 2012 Could Be Deadliest Year Yet

Marc Criffield clutches a small receiver in his hand and peers through the window of a single-engine Cessna. Suddenly, the device lets out an electric chirp. A second later, another chirp, and then another. Criffield has pinpointed FP197, a burly 4-and-a-half-year-old panther in the prime of its life. But something is wrong.

Instead of showing the endangered panther on the prowl, the signal is stationary. The cat might be sleeping through the sticky July heat, or the locator might be broken. But in his decades of tracking animals — from wolves along the Mexican border to foxes in the Great Plains — the 40-year-old scientist has learned to trust his gut.

"Knowing that he's a male with other males around that area, you get that sneaking suspicion something isn't right," Criffield says.

He has good reason to feel unsettled: This year has already been a brutal one for Florida's tiny panther population. By the end of June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recorded 14 deaths. If panther corpses keep piling up at that rate, it'll be the deadliest 12 months since detailed record-keeping began in 1981.

Even worse, a large percentage of those deaths — 50 percent this year and 54 percent between 2000 and 2011 — are due to an all-too-predictable cause: collisions with Florida drivers. As development encroaches farther into panther territory, experts worry that 2012 is a harbinger of even deadlier years to come. That hasn't stopped Gov. Rick Scott from reviving a controversial highway corridor plan and scaling back Florida's long-standing growth management laws.

"By far the single greatest threat to their survival is development and the degradation and fragmentation of habitat that accompanies it," says Elizabeth Fleming, a Florida representative for environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

The iconic Florida panther, a subspecies of the more common American cougar, once wandered across eight states, from Texas to Arkansas to South Carolina. For millions of years, they evolved into remarkable predators. But their rapid decline began with the first white settlers, who were keen to kill any beasts threatening farmers. In 1887, the state put a $5 bounty on panther scalps, starting a hunting bonanza.

The real death knell, though, came not from guns but street pavers colonizing huge swaths of Florida in the post-World War II suburban boom. In 1967, panthers were placed on the federal endangered species list; some experts debated whether any of the big cats were left in the wild.

By the early '90s, scientists had found and tracked 30 survivors. The tiny population suffered rampant inbreeding, spurring heart problems and reproductive issues, so in 1995, biologists imported eight female cougars from Texas to diversify the gene pool. The plan helped, but almost 20 years later, the population is still minuscule — between 100 to 160 — clustered mostly in rural counties such as Collier, Lee, and Hendry.

Criffield has always been fascinated by hard-luck animals like the Florida panther. Raised in north Texas, he immersed himself in rugged wilderness at a young age. After graduating with degrees in genetics and zoology from Texas A&M, he bounced around, looking for his niche. He worked with coyotes, bears, and bats before heading to Oklahoma State University for a master's degree and research on local foxes.

After grad school, Criffield went to New Mexico to track endangered Mexican wolves before leaving five years ago for an FWC job in the Panhandle. At first, the gig was dull; he spent days fielding calls about trapping permits and bear sightings. So when he got an opportunity to move downstate and work with the elusive panther, Criffield jumped.

"I love the panther work," he says. "It has a purpose and I feel like I'm contributing to the greater good."

He quickly learned that tracking the elusive creatures is no easy task. It starts with a hunt for telltale signs like paw prints or fresh dung. Then a trained hound sniffs down the cat and forces it up a tree, where it's shot with a tranquilizer as FWC workers scurry below with a net the size of a bed sheet. If the panther doesn't drop, someone has to climb the tree and toss down the cat, which weighs up to 160 pounds. Vets and biologists then check its vitals, attach a collar and transponder, and tattoo its ear.

It sometimes takes weeks to find a single animal. "We usually average about a panther a week," Criffield says. "But we could find one in one week and then not find any for weeks. It's real sporadic."

Tough as it is, tracking is crucial for keeping an accurate population count. Lately, those numbers have been harrowing.

In 11 years, between 2000 and 2011, the FWC recorded 230 panther deaths. Vehicles were the leading cause by a wide margin, killing at least 126. But in just the past six months, from January through June, FWC has already documented 14 dead panthers, half of which were killed by cars.

While 2012 is on pace to be the worst on record, Criffield notes that panther deaths can occur in spurts. "Sometimes three dead panthers can be recovered in a week and then another won't be reported for three months," he says.

Either way, activists argue there's a direct link between those deaths and Florida's ever-expanding push into panther habitat. Many point to Ave Maria — the Catholic college built in 2005 smack in the middle of cat territory — and the outskirts of Naples as the worst offenders.

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.

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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Chris Sweeney

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