FORT MEYERS, Fla. -

Florida appears on pace to match or break its record for panther road kills.

A record-tying 17 panthers died from vehicle collisions last year. Thirteen of the 16 confirmed panther deaths so far this year have been blamed on vehicle strikes.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Darrell Land says the rising number of panther road kills may indicate that the endangered cats' population is growing. Only a few died each year because of cars a decade ago.

Land tells the News-Press that the "number road kills per year tracks pretty well" with researchers' estimates for the panther population over the years.

Roughly 160 panthers are believed to roam southern Florida now. The population has grown from just a couple dozen cats since the mid-1990s.