Thousands of people flock to freshwater springs in North Florida each winter to see manatees. As waters cool, these warm-blooded mammals seek the warmer water of the springs.
Meanwhile, in South Florida, locals and tourists alike hope to catch a glimpse of a Florida panther in the wild.
Manatees and panthers have come to embody Florida’s incredible biodiversity, engendering support for wildlife statewide. But boat strikes and collisions with vehicles — along with habitat loss and climate change — are killing them at record rates.
Now, manatees will be even more susceptible to population losses since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month downgraded the docile animals from endangered to threatened, stripping the species of some federal protections.
And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has called on Fish and Wildlife to downgrade the Florida panther as well.
Recent results from wildlife officials about increases in manatee and Florida panther numbers might lead some to believe their populations have recovered. But despite the gains, these awe-inspiring and endangered creatures still need our help to survive.
In fact, for both manatees and panthers, 2016 was the deadliest year yet.
Of the 520 manatee deaths in 2016, boat strikes killed 104, accounting for 20 percent of total mortalities. There were 42 known panther deaths in 2016, and 34 of those were confirmed to be from collisions with vehicles.
Most years, such collisions are the leading causes of Florida manatee and panther deaths. For manatees, the average number of deaths is more than seven times what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates can be killed without impairing the species’ recovery.
For panthers, it contributes to their stalled recovery in South Florida. With a recovery target of 240 panthers, the current population — estimated at anywhere from 120 to 230 — will never be able to sustain itself if the animals keep getting hit by cars and losing habitat.
That habitat loss is a threat to both mammals. Development carves up waterways and roadways, leading to boat and vehicle strikes. And degradation and outright loss of habitat have insidiously specific effects on Florida manatees and panthers.
These threats add up to bleak long-term prospects for panthers and manatees.
It is good news that Florida manatee Florida panther populations have increased. But the state’s human population has increased, too, and the pace of development has only quickened.
Endangered species protection and public support for sharing space with these Florida natives must remain a priority for Florida manatees and panthers.
JACLYN LOPEZ, ST. PETERSBURG
Editor’s note: Jaclyn Lopez is Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity.