By Caitlin Kupar
For the past 25 years of Florida panther recovery, a large part of the state’s research initiative has included outfitting panthers with either VHF or GPS radiocollars. These radiocollars are a common tool used to monitor wildlife and collect data on survival, movement, behavior, reproduction and more. Due to COVID-19 and the associated risks involved when handling endangered species, the capture and collaring of Florida panthers did not occur in winter 2020/2021. Outside of capture season, there are periodic collaring opportunities for Florida panthers. The latest example was 9 December 2020 when a Florida panther was struck by a vehicle in central Collier County south of Immokalee. A concerned citizen reported the injured panther to local authorities and it was rescued by FWC biologists who captured and transported it to the Naples Zoo for veterinary care and holding. This male panther was estimated to be 2-3 years old and was in good condition. The vehicle collision resulted in minor injuries which included abrasions, a chipped upper canine, soreness, and a noticeable limp when using a front leg. However, X-rays revealed no broken bones and continued observation indicated no serious internal injuries.
Two weeks after the collision, approval was given from veterinary staff, FWC panther biologists, and USFWS to release the male panther back into the wild. The panther, now identified as FP260, was fitted with a GPS radiocollar and released onto the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, FP260’s GPS radiocollar has sent 2108 locations as he moves, eats, sleeps, and looks for a mate. These data allowed panther biologists to locate the remains of a white-tailed deer that had been consumed by FP260, confirming his injuries had not inhibited his ability to successfully take down large prey. This is a good indicator of health and fitness necessary to succeed as an adult Florida panther.
In a relatively short time, FP260 has demonstrated how successful and important highway underpasses are to wildlife. By using up to 12 different wildlife crossings, FP260 has been able to safely access Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Big Cypress National Preserve without ever setting a paw on a paved road. Florida panthers, especially males, can struggle to maintain their large home ranges due to lack of habitat connectivity in some areas. Busy roads can easily become an impediment and risk for Florida panthers on their movements searching for prey and mates. Vehicle collisions remain the greatest source of mortality for panthers and a variety of efforts have been made to reduce these collisions via panther speed zones and crossing signs installed in areas where FWC data have identified frequent crossing attempts. Wildlife crossings, typically underpasses in Florida, which include extensive fencing along the roadway leading to the crossing, have been very successful at reducing vehicle collisions involving panthers. These wildlife crossings serve a dual purpose for panthers and all the other wildlife that utilize them. They assist with preventing mortality associated with vehicle collisions while also helping to mitigate the impact of habitat fragmentation cause by roads via an increase in connectivity of habitat.