The story has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. It has cats (everyone loves cats). It has celebrities: these aren’t your average domesticated tabbies; they are Florida’s state animal. Tragedy: not long ago only a few were left in the wild, under serious threat in a limited habitat and their extinction was all but inevitable. A plot twist: 20 years of conservation efforts have inched the species back from the brink. Suspense: the best way to save these animals is to enable them to roam north safely to reach new territory across the Caloosahatchee River. As of last March, this epic story of survival-against-the-odds even has kittens.
Florida panther mother with kittens. © Florida Fish and Wildlife via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Every great epic has a backstory. Florida panthers—large, tawny-colored cats up to 160 pounds and over 7 feet long from nose to tail—once flourished at the top of the food chain, ruling over the entire Southeast United States from the rocky Carolina mountains to the Louisiana marshes and the flowing wetlands of the Everglades. As humans began to encroach on their habitat, however, these majestic cats shared the fate of all our large predators. Their numbers steadily decreased, impacted by development and decimated by hunters, disease, and more recently, cars.
Florida panther crossing. © Everglades NPS via Flickr (Public Domain Mark 1.0)
In the late ‘60s less than 30 panthers were left, concentrated mostly around Okaloacoochee Sloughin southwest Florida, cut off from their more expansive territory to the north. The small population was stressed by genetic mutations such as kinked tails, heart-related disorders and fertility problems. The human population, meanwhile, continued to press in around them. Subdivisions were eating up the buffer zones and further eroding the panthers’ habitat. Vehicular strikes were taking a toll. Things didn’t look good.
But then, in the nick of time, a remarkable rescue effort kicked into gear (cue the arriving-cavalry-coming-over-the-hill music). The ranchers, government agencies, and conservation groups put aside their often-conflicting agendas and united behind two goals: increase the panther population and expand new territory. By 1996 the Conservancy and its partners had protected the 29,495-acre Slough. Other critical panther habitat—including the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples—had been secured. Eight cougars (another sub species of the Puma family) were then brought in from Texas as a last ditch effort to deepen the gene pool. A monitoring program (capturing, collaring, releasing and tracking panthers) produced dependable data. And yes, panther numbers started edging upwards and the all-but-inevitable end turned into something like cautious optimism. Today there are between 160 and 200 Florida panthers surviving in the wild.
But healthy numbers are only half the problem. More cats require more room. “A male panther requires a territory of about 200 square miles,” explains Greg Knecht, deputy executive director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “The panthers are reaching their maximum density in southwest Florida and the population just can’t grow much more unless they can expand into new territory.” As early as 1994, the Conservancy began laying the foundation for protecting a wildlife corridor made up of linked conservation areas that would allow the panthers to continue to escape the populated areas in the southwest, cross the Caloosahatchee River (which runs from Lake Okeechobee to Ft. Myers), and establish home ranges in the wide open areas of central and north Florida.
Map of current and future panther protection areas. © The Nature Conservancy
The corridor started taking shape. Big Cypress National Park was connected through Hendry up to Glades County (Fisheating Creek). Between 1995 and 1997, the Conservancy worked to protect land that is now Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, followed by thousands of acres of working ranchland protected through conservation easements. In 2000, the Conservancy helped protect the Spirit of the Wild Wildlife Management Area, and a year later, partnered with several private landowners and state agencies to protect 20,895 acres of panther habitat now known as the Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area.
Recognizing that reaching and crossing the Caloosahatchee River is critical to the panthers’ survival, the Conservancy worked diligently to protect two key properties that connect to the south side of the river. In 2012, the Conservancy, in coordination with state and federal agencies, protected the 1,257 acre American Prime property through a series of conservation easements just prior to a foreclosure sale of the property. In 2015, the Conservancy acquired a conservation easement to protect more than 1,527 acres at Black Boar Ranch, with the assistance of the US Department of Agriculture.
“Getting this far is a monumental achievement,” emphasizes Knecht. “One that would not have been possible without the collaboration of everyone involved, starting with the ranchers. They gave us this opportunity.” The Florida Department of Transportation put up fencing along the busiest roads such as Alligator Alley and State Road 80, and built wildlife underpasses to ensure safe passage for panthers beneath these highways. Floridians have supported the cause, in part by buying 1.4 million panther license plates since 1993 (90 percent of the extra $25 collected from the sale of Florida panther specialty license plates goes to panther research).
The Conservancy is now focused on expanding the corridor north of the Caloosahatchee. Panther tracks and trail-camera images show that males are making their way across the river in greater numbers. Last year, for the first time since 1973, a female was photographed in Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County. And even better news came this March when a camera recorded two kittens trotting after their mother, the first such sighting in over 40 years.
Florida panther kitten. © Florida Fish and Wildlife via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
If Hollywood controlled the script, this is where the survival-against-the-odds movie would end (zoom in for a kitten close up, cue the classical music, fade to black). The real story, of course, isn’t over yet. “The presence of a nursing female is a really positive sign,” says Knecht, “the first major step toward the establishment of a subpopulation. But 200 cats in the wild falls far short of a thriving species and we still have a great deal to do before the Florida panther is safely off the Endangered Species List. The corridor must be completed in the next 5 to 10 years or it will be too late.”
FLORIDA PANTHER FACTS
- Seminole legend says that the “Grandfather” (Creator) ensured that the panther was the first creature to walk the Earth.
- Panther kittens stay with their mother for two years.
- Male panthers defend territories of 200 square miles.
- Panther litters vary from 1 to 4 kittens, although many do not survive.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Support the Conservancy’s Florida panther program or text the word PANTHER to 97779 to make a quick and easy PayPal or credit card donation.
Slow down when driving
In 2016, of the 42 Florida panthers that died in the wild, 32 were killed by vehicle strikes.