LAKELAND (CBSMiami/AP) — The Florida Panther may be finding new territory around the state.

State biologists are finding more panther tracks in Polk County and throughout southwest Florida. In recent years panthers have been tracked or photographed near Avon Park and Haines City, and they’ve been seen in developments outside Naples.

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In April, one panther was injured when it hit a vehicle near Fort Meade.

Officials marked panthers as endangered in 1973. The increasingly frequent sightings are a sign of a successful recovery effort. Now, the Naples Zoo and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are launching a new panther research program to better understand the animals. It’s estimated some 150 panthers live in Florida, their ranks growing even as their habitat shrinks. Still, some 74 were killed by vehicles in the last five years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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