There may have been a decline in panther deaths and the birth of 21 panther kittens in 2013, but not all news was good for Florida's signature species.
Panther deaths declined from 27 in 2012 to 20 in 2013, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
There were no panther deaths reported in Monroe County. Panthers have been known to frequent the area in mainland Monroe County and around Card Sound Road in northern Key Largo.
Collisions with vehicles continue to be the primary cause of panther deaths, with 15 animals dying last year because they were hit while crossing highways. The previous year, 18 were killed by vehicles, according to FWC statistics.
The agency did document the birth of 21 panther kittens in 2013. Additionally, more than 1,100 panther sightings have been reported statewide since the FWC launched an online site in August 2012 that enables the public to report when and where a Florida panther is seen.
Biologists estimate there are between 100 to 160 panthers in the wild, according to the FWC.
"Forty years ago when the Endangered Species Act was passed, some people wondered if any panthers remained in Florida," said Carol Knox, head of the FWC's Imperiled Species Management Section. "Where once a sighting of a panther was almost unheard of, today, more and more Floridians and visitors are having the thrill of seeing and even photographing this elusive cat in the wild."
Despite the mortalities in 2013, FWC officials are confident the Florida panther population continues to expand, Knox said.
"People who slow down and drive carefully in rural areas, especially where panther crossings and speed zones are identified, can make a difference," she added. "It is especially important to slow down and keep a careful lookout at dawn or dusk, when panthers are most likely to be on the move."
There have already been two panther deaths in 2014. One of the deaths was a recently released male.
A brother-and-sister pair of panthers, rescued as kittens in 2011 and raised at the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, was released back to the wild in 2013.
The female, released in January in Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County, was documented last June to have given birth to a kitten.
But the story for the male did not end so well. The animal was released last April in the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area in Palm Beach County, but died Jan. 4 because of unknown causes after being located a day earlier in a very lethargic state, and then taken to a veterinary clinic.
State and federal authorities are also investigating the death of a panther that was shot last fall in Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County. The cat was an 18-month-old female that was the offspring of a female panther that is collared and continues to be monitored.
Florida panthers are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Under Florida Statute, people found guilty of unlawfully killing one can be charged with a third-degree felony, and could face up to one year in prison and $100,000 in fines.
"We have had a couple sad panther reports this year," FWC spokeswoman Carli Segalson said. "We do think they (panthers) are a success because their population has increased. But with that increase comes challenges."