State wildlife biologists are investigating the death of a critically endangered Florida panther nine months after it was released back into the wild following rehabilitation at a Nassau County conservation center for previously near-fatal injuries.

The 3-year-old male designated FP 250was found dead Monday by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team scientists in the woods of North Belle Meade near Naples in Collier County. They found his carcass roughly 60 miles — by car — southwest of the Hendry County wildlife management area where he'd been released in February.

The big cat was the 27th panther found dead this year in Florida and one of the very few not killed on the state's roads.

It's unknown as yet how the panther died.

Scientists are waiting for completed necropsy results, which are expected this week, said Dave Onorato, FWC panther research scientist.

Onorato said some injuries seemed consistent with from a fight with another panther. Otherwise, he seemed healthy from what scientists could glean given the state of decomposition.

It appeared he died Nov. 2 or Nov.  3, Onorato said.

"His GPS collar had sent a mortality message. He also had remained in the same location for 2-3 days," Onorato said of how they found him.

FIGHT FOR LIFE

It was a sad tragic ending for a panther that had fought so hard to live.

The panther almost died June 7, 2017 when hit by a car on Immokalee Road in Collier County — about about eight miles from where his remains were recovered. 

The cat was barely alive when rescued from the side of the road back then by a FWC panther biologist and veterinarian. He had three broken legs — both rear legs and his front left leg — and other injuries. The injuries would have doomed him to a slow excruciating death because he was unable to hunt for food.

They rushed the panther to Animal Specialty Hospital of Florida & 24-Hour ER in Naples, where he underwent six hours of surgery by a team led by Marc Havig, a board certified veterinarian/surgeon. They realigned the broken bones and used special plates that helped the panther heal, regain its mobility and ultimately return to the wild.

The panther convalesced at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

On Nov. 1, 2017, he arrived at White Oak Conservation — a respected nonprofit conservation center in Nassau County known internationally for its work to save endangered species and habitats — for the final phase of rehabilitation before being returned to the wild.

White Oak Conservation encompasses about 17,000 acres on the banks of the St. Marys River at Yulee. Roughly 30 miles north of Jacksonville, White Oak is a longtime partner of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the care and rehabilitation of orphaned, sick or injured Florida panthers.

Mark Walter, owner of White Oak Conservation, said they were "incredibly saddened" to learn the panther died. The center has rehabilitated about 15 panthers for release since 1985. Most have done very well, Walter said, including some females that have gone on to have kittens.

“Still, with every rehabilitation and release, we fear for tragic outcomes like this," Walter said of the death "This is exactly why White Oak works not only to save endangered species but to save wild spaces as well. The two often go hand-in-hand."   

FINALLY FREE

Freedom finally came Feb. 16.

State biologists released FP 250 at Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area in Hendry County. With a twitch of his whiskers and split second hesitation to get his bearings when the transport crate door opened, the big cat bolted full speed into nearby woods without a glance back at his rescuers.

The panther was fitted with a GPS tracking collar allowing biologists to keep tabs on him. It offered a glimpse into his daily life including the possibility he might have fathered a litter of panther kittens, Onorato said.

They know he kept company with a female panther, FP 224,which also was fitted with a GPS tracking collar. She subsequently gave birth to three kittens — two males and one female — documented by biologists Aug. 18, in North Belle Meade when they were 18 days old, Onorato said.

"At this point, we can’t confirm her most recent litter was sired by him, but it’s a possibility. Genetic analyses will eventually answer that question down the line, Onorato said. It's possible FP 250 also might have paired up with uncollared female panthers, he said.

"He did contribute genetically to the next generation of panthers," Onorato said.

PANTHER POPULATION

There are more Florida panthers now than when designated a federally endangered species in 1967. However, the iconic official state animal is still considered the most endangered mammal in the eastern United States.

Habitat loss and fragmentation due to ever-encroaching development resulting in road kills, scientists say, are among the biggest threats to the species. Some research also shows the infestation of invasive Burmese pythons in southern Florida is decimating the panther's natural prey — such as deer and small wildlife — forcing the big cats to roam farther for food and increasing the risk of getting hit by vehicles.

State and federal panther researchers estimate the Florida panther population totals at 120 to 230 adult and sub-adult animals statewide — a significant recovery from the estimated 20 to 30 in the 1970s. Most are found south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee in Southwest Florida.

It's impossible, researchers say, to know the exact panther population at any given time because of constant births, deaths and the inherent limitations of current survey methods.

Most panthers die on state roads while crossing to forage for food or scout out territory.

So far this year, 24 or about 89 percent of the panthers killed, died from being hit by vehicles. A total of 30 died last year including 77 percent or 23 from vehicle strikes, according to state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. In 2016, 42 were killed including 34 or 81 percent from vehicle strikes.

Before the year 2000, annual panther road kills were four or less. Some scientists and others say as the panther population increases, so, too, will the number killed in collisions with cars and trucks.

People can report injured or dead panthers toll-free to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission via the agency's Wildlife Alert Hotline, (888) 404-3922 or text Wildlife Alert to Tip@MyFWC.com.

For more panther information, http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/panther. For information about White Oak https://www.whiteoakwildlife.org.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075