SOUTH FLORIDA -- The deaths of two Florida panthers earlier this month brought the fatality total of the iconic endangered cat to 26 this year, the highest since officials started keeping count.
The most recent fatality was a cat found on Dec. 11 just off the Tamiami Trail, a few miles east of Everglades City. That panther was the 18th to be killed by vehicles this year, eclipsing the previous record of 17.
Wildlife officials estimate the Florida panther population to be between 100 and 160, up from 30 in 1995, when cougars were brought into the state from Texas to vary the gene pool and boost the species' chance of survival. The genetic cousins are subspecies of the American puma.
Breeding panthers range throughout the interior wildlands of South Florida, from the Caloosahatchee river south to Everglades National Park.
Dave Onorato, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research scient-ist, attributed this year's record mortality count to a crowding of the environment. Along with more panthers, there's more people, more roads and more vehicular traffic.
Male panthers control ranges of 200 square miles. They'll share those areas with females, but tolerate only limited crossover by other males.
So far, said Onorato, there is no evidence that the Florida panther population is beginning to decline. Even with 26 deaths this year, births could potentially keep up. Female panthers can bare litters of two or three approximately every 18 months.
Still, the population does appear to have stopped growing over the past three years.
"There's limited habitat and more panthers than there used to be," Onorato said. "So that could cause a leveling off."
Others see real peril for the panther after the record-setting year of fatalities.
"Florida panthers are dying on roadways they have to cross in their day-to-day lives because they're increasingly squeezed into smaller fragments of land between developments," said Michael Robinson, a conservationist for the endangered species advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity. "These beautiful cats are under siege from out-of-control growth and threatened by inbreeding."
In 2011 the group petitioned the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, calling for a reintroduction of the panther in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which is located along the Florida/Georgia border in what was once part of the cat's natural range. But the request was rejected.
Onorato said the ideal situation would be for panthers to move independently into central Florida. Males are already known to stake out territories north of the Caloosahatchee. But they haven't been joined by females.
He said the inception this year of Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge south of Orlando could be a positive development for the panther. The preserve was officially inaugurated with just 10 acres in January. But wildlife officials envision a conservation area of 100,000 to 150,000 acres in the Kissimmee River Basin.
"Any land in central Florida that's put aside for wildlife and doesn't become a condo development or the next shopping center is beneficial for wildlife in Florida," Onorato said.