Florida Panthers Now Kill More Deer Than Humans Do

Florida panthers now kill more white-tailed deer in the state's southwest than humans do, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

An endangered species, the Florida panther has recently been the focus of conservation efforts in South Florida. Risks to the panthers mainly include human-caused habitat fragmentation, as well as being hit by cars and fighting between males.

Low populations led to concerns of inbreeding—individuals began having kinked tails, and heart and sperm problems—so in the mid-1990s scientists began genetic restoration efforts. This helped the panther population increase substantially, from between 20 to 30 individuals up to around 200 by 2017.

This is still a very small population, but a significant recovery from previous numbers.

Stock image: a white-tailed deer and a Florida panther. iStock / Getty Images

As there were once so few panthers in Florida, they used to pose little risk to deer, with the majority of deer deaths as a result of bobcats and hunters.

However, this has now changed, said Richard Chandler, associate professor in the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

"Panther predation went from a very small source of mortality to now being the dominant source of mortality for deer," Chandler said in a statement.

Researchers tracked 241 deer in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Cypress National Preserve between 2015 and 2018. Over that time, they found 96 deer were killed by panthers, seven by bobcats, and one by a human.

White-tailed deer are considered a species of least concern, according to the IUCN Red List. However, they are very important to the local hunting industry. White-tailed deer is the most popular game species in the state, generating the majority of the $716 million estimated annual revenue from hunting-related expenditures in 2011.

The high number of deer being killed by the panthers poses a challenge for the state which must balance the competing demands of nurturing the population of large predators and ensuring there are enough deer for human hunters.

"They have restricted hunter harvest quite a bit for the benefit of the deer population and to make sure there's plenty of prey for panthers. But it's a balancing act," Chandler said.

"They don't want to shut down hunting opportunities, but they don't want the harvest to be so high that it suppresses the prey population and keeps the panthers from recovering. Our results emphasize how difficult that will be. Future work is needed to determine if additional habitat management can bolster the deer population for the benefit of panthers and people."