Friday, August 18, 2017

The Return of the Florida Panther: Something Close to a Success Story

 by Endless Summer

A remarkable tale of survival of Florida's wild cat.

A Small Band of Survivors

When European settlers arrived in North America wild cats roamed the entire continent. As population on the Eastern Seaboard increased, habitat for large predators became scarce.

For decades American farmers and ranchers hunted to eliminate predators like wolves and cats, hunted them to the brink of extinction. The survivors moved primarily to the west. But one small band of wild cats moved south. They survive today in Florida’s Everglades.

We know them as cougars and mountain lions, catamounts, puma and panther. Documented by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s, by the late 1800’s they had disappeared from the east and the mid-west. Survivors continued to move west, but by the late 1960’s they were threatened with extinction.

Against the Odds

These cats face difficult odds of survival in a heavily populated world. They live singular lives, rather than in packs, the exception being a mother raising cubs. If a mother cougar dies the cubs almost never survive. They are free-ranging hunters who need a habitat of about 200 square miles to thrive. If there is a drought or some other issue that makes their food source scarce they will need even more. It is difficult for these cats to range abroad without running into humans who pose a threat to their survival.

Protection for the big cats has been spotty. It wasn’t until 1990 that California voted to protect cougars. Most of the western states classify them as game animals and they are allowed to be hunted.

There are a few areas of preservation but because the cats roam far and wide, if they leave the protected area they can be killed. Though sightings of the big cats are fairly rare, occasionally they cross paths with humans, and hikers and joggers have been killed. Invariably this leads to a cougar hunt and another cat killed, usually with no proof that the cat was involved in killing or harming a human.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a small group of big cats managed to survive, against the odds. The Florida group became completely isolated from the rest of the species. They moved further and further south and deeper and deeper into the swamps. They adapted to their new environment by becoming smaller and faster and somewhat omnivorous. Reptiles and amphibians began to make up a large portion of their diet, being that snakes, lizards and turtles are abundant in the Glades.

As their population shrank certain characteristics became a permanent part of their genetic makeup, like their distinctive kinked tails and a cowlick on their backs. Wildlife biologists determined that they were different enough from their western cousins to be listed as a separate sub-species, The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi).

A Species On the Brink

By the late 1960s, the Florida Panther was in real trouble, with a population estimated at merely 30-50 remaining cats. In 1967 the panther was named to the state’s endangered and protected animal list.

In 1973 when the federal government passed the Endangered Species Act, the Florida Panther was one of the first species to be named to protection. No longer to be hunted, the panther’s greatest enemy now was the automobile. Through the next few decades, the state put efforts into supporting the panthers.

Captive breeding programs were established and most of the remaining wild panthers were found and fitted with transmitter tracking collars. A series of wildlife underpasses were built to help establish safe highway crossings. The cats were smart and it didn’t take long at all for them to begin using the underpasses. But their numbers didn’t grow much.

In the early 1990’s the Florida Wildlife Commission decided to try an experiment. Panthers had not been seen north of the Caloosahatchee River, the northern boundary of the Everglades, since the mid-1970’s. Wildlife biologists had speculated that the panthers could survive in the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the Florida-Georgia border in the northeast part of the state.
As an experiment, they brought 100 western cougars into the swamp, with the hopes that they would be able to survive and eventually they would release some of the Florida panthers into the swamp with the hope that they would interbreed and strengthen some of the genetic weaknesses found in the Florida cats.

As we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While the cougars were protected in Florida, they were not under protection in Georgia. None of the western Cougars survived a year. Almost every single one of them was shot by a hunter in Georgia.

Biologists did not give up on the Florida panthers. During the rest of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, the state acquired more land for panther habitat. Private land has also been set aside with conservation easements. 

A Search for Habitat

Today the population is estimated to be at around 100 wild cats. Biologists say that at least 3 separate populations of 240 cats each are needed to sustain a healthy panther population. Habitat is the biggest issue. South Florida is heavily populated, and Florida developers have rarely been hesitant to drain and fill swampland. People keep pushing deeper and deeper into what was once considered uninhabitable spaces.

Florida’s Everglades is a completely unique ecosystem. There is nothing comparable anywhere else on the globe. Anchored by Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake, it was once a more than 4000 square mile fresh water marsh. Fresh water flows in a continual current over a hundred miles of grass, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout this giant wetland rise strands of cypress and live oak, and near the coast it becomes mangrove swamp. This is not a deep, dark swamp of the Louisiana Bayou variety, though Florida has plenty of those. Much of the area receives abundant sunshine. But the ground is literally covered with shallow water for thousands of square miles. Mosquitoes are ubiquitous. Gators are legion. The only species of crocodile found in the US live here. The lack of uplands makes the region mostly uninhabitable. Seminole Indians live in homes elevated above the water and travel is via canoe, kayak, or more commonly, airboat.

But the distinct lack of a human footprint within this river of grass is the reason panthers have managed to hold on, in small numbers, here in Florida.

A Step Forward

Then, this fall, something extraordinary happened.

For the first time in over forty years, a female panther with two kittens was spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River. Wildlife cameras had previously captured photos of a male panther, who typically range much farther than females, in this area. But the sight of a breeding mother panther with kittens marked a huge milestone in the reclamation of habitat by this endangered breed. This adventuresome mother has taken a giant step towards habitat reclamation.

And while the movements and breeding habits of a wild cat may seem fairly insignificant, it’s possible that the future of the Florida Panther lies with this bold female and her cubs. Her migration north of the river is not a guarantee that a new panther population will be established, but it is a piece of good news for a species that rarely sees any.

Wildlife conservationists have celebrated her migration and have high hopes that her move signals a major milestone for her species. For so many people, biologists, scientists, and volunteers, who have worked and fought to give Florida’s big cats a chance, it is a moment to feel heartened, and validated. A small victory, hard fought, hard won.
A (sort of) success story.

For more information on the Florida Everglades:

For more information on Florida Panther conservation:

As always I want to offer my thanks and gratitude to Nomad for so graciously hosting this community and this post. I invite everyone to share any good news regarding endangered species or the environment in the comments. I would love to hear of other success stories, especially ones that are close to each of you, or just close to your hearts.