Protect the Florida Panther
or Lose Her Forever
What is the Species?
Puma concolor coryi. The Florida Panther is a subspecies of cougar that has
adapted to the subtropical environment of Florida.
How Many Panthers Are Left?
Only 120 to 230 panthers still remain in Florida, making this one of the most rare and endangered mammals in the world.
Where is their Habitat?
Florida Panthers are usually found in pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and mixed swamp forests. Adult males may range over an area of 200 square miles, while females range over a 70 to 80 square mile area. Florida panthers are very solitary animals. An adult maintains a home range to live, hunt and, if female, raise its young alone. A male panther’s home range is very large and averages 275 square miles and overlaps with the smaller home ranges of females. Panthers maintain boundaries by marking with scents. They rarely fight over territory.
Panthers are most active at dusk and dawn, they can travel 15-20 miles a day, often moving in a zig-zag pattern, though they tend to rest during the daytime, travel & hunt during the cooler hours of the night. Panthers can swim and will cross wide bodies of water. They have a keen sense of smell and a field of vision of 130 degrees, they have excellent depth perception but lack the panoramic view that deer have.
They can run up to 35 mph but only for a few hundred yards, their preferred method of hunting is to creep up as close to their prey as possible and launch a short spring attack. Panthers do become used to man-made noises and frequently cross roads. They are attracted to woodland fires and may stay near burned sites for days as deer and other prey are drawn to new vegetation. When humans approach an area they will either be still, disappear, or attempt to circle behind. Panthers can live up to between 12-15 years in the wild. A male can measure 7-8 feet from the nose to tail tip and weigh 100-160 lbs. Females are about 6 feet in length and weigh between 60-100 lbs.
What About Their Breeding Habits?
The Life Cycle
What Kind of Hunter is the Panther?
Efficient is the word. Adult male panthers weigh up to 150 pounds and can measure almost 7 feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. Females are smaller, rarely weighing more than 100 pounds. Panthers are built to hunt live prey. Deer and wild hogs
are their preferred food, but, when these are not available, panthers will eat raccoons, armadillos, and even alligators. Interestingly, panthers eating a diet of small animals are not as healthy as those with plenty of deer to hunt. While they are good sprinters, panthers rarely chase prey for long distances. Instead, prey is singled out, stalked and ambushed.
What are the Threats?
We are. This also means that we can directly affect the panther’s future. It’s sad to say that Florida panthers are killed by cars and trucks, particularly on State Road 29 and Alligator Alley (I-75), and – although it is against the law – hunters also still shoot panthers occasionally.
The biggest threats to the remaining panthers, however, are their health and continuing loss of habitat. Florida panthers have an unusually large number of health problems. Most are related to poor habitat conditions and genetic defects.
Around the Everglades, panthers have been contaminated with mercury (at least 1 has died from mercury poisoning) by eating raccoons high in mercury, which passes through the aquatic food chain. The mercury’s origin is being debated and is uncertain.
What is being done?
Plans to save the panthers focus on 3 areas of action. First, additional habitat must be secured and enhanced. Second, programs are under way to breed panthers in captivity for later release back in the wild. Third, scientists are exploring ways to increase the genetic variability of panthers through cross-breeding with closely related subspecies.
The panther needs large wilderness areas for its survival. Federally listed as endangered since 1967, the Florida panther was once down to 25 individuals. These few animals are threatened by further habitat loss, collisions with cars, the ill effects of inbreeding, and high levels of mercury in their prey.
May of the remaining panthers live in or near Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. The National Park Service is cooperating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Department of Natural Resources, and other organizations to try to bring about recovery of the Florida panther. Efforts are centered on research, captive breeding, and public education. Radio-collaring of several panthers has shown what areas and habitat types they use. Other studies have identified the principal prey — white-tailed deer. Publicity has made the public more aware of the panther’s plight and alerted people to watch out for them on the highway. But with the numbers so low and suitable habitat in south Florida so restricted, captive breeding and re-establishment in other areas will be crucial for turning the population decline around.
Are There Any Refuges?
The National Wildlife Refuge System Act of 1966 includes measures to preserve ecosystems for endangered species, perpetuate migratory bird species, preserve natural diversity, and create public appreciation for wildlife protection.
The refuge system is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior. The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is one of the 58 refuges established under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. The refuge area has long been known as an important Florida Panther habitat. Several female panthers have had litters and raised kittens on the refuge in recent years.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission monitors panther activity using radio telemetry collars. They fly three times a week to aerially locate each radio-collared panther. These techniques provide vital information to scientists. The swamps and pinelands panthers occupy also provide us with clean air and water, as well as thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants.
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge lies 20 miles east of Naples, Florida. Interstate 75 parallels the south boundary; State Road 29 parallels the east boundary.
Mission of the Panther Refuge
To conserve and manage lands and waters in concert with other agency efforts within the Big Cypress Watershed, primarily for the Florida Panther, other endangered and threatened species, natural diversity,
and cultural resources for the benefit of the American people.
In 1989, data collected from 29 radio-collared panthers indicated that the population was losing genetic diversity at a rate of three to seven percent yearly. Researchers believed that the gene pool would continue to erode even if the population stabilized, leading to extinction within 40 years. Three years later, with the health of the population continuing to decline, biologists made a controversial decision. In an effort to increase genetic diversity, wildlife managers introduced several female Texas cougars — the closest remaining cougar population that had historically shared Florida panther range — into the Florida panther population in 1995. Several hybrid litters have since been produced, and the introduction seems to have corrected some of the problems experts generally attribute to inbreeding. Experts are still debating the role of the Texas cougars in panther recovery.
Despite the success of this effort, panthers are still at great risk of extinction. Conserving the panther will require aggressive protections for remaining wild lands in south Florida as well as conservation efforts on private lands.
Another major conservation challenge for the panther is reestablishing the species in other portions of its historic range. Field studies have indicated an adequate prey base and appropriate habitat in some areas of northern Florida. While there is widespread popular support for panther reintroduction in Florida, some people are still concerned about introducing the cat to new areas, fearing the panther will bring with it restrictions on private property uses, potential damage to livestock and pets, and a possible threat to human safety. Such concerns often surround recovery efforts for large carnivores, but with proper assurances to address depredation claims and any potential “problem” animals, reintroduction projects could prove a positive step towards recovering the Florida panther.
What You Can Do To Save The Panther
- Become informed by researching materials from creditable sources which take a scientific approach.
- Regularly express your support for the Florida panther by writing political figures and agency administrators.
- Help others become educated about the nature and habits of the panther and its value as an important part in the balance of nature.
- Support wilderness land acquisition, and the public and private land management practices which emphasize biodiversity and balance.
- Don’t be silent, join in and support the environmental education process to raise the consciousness of the community. You can do this by individual effort and/or by joining with others in various ways to get the job done.
- Do a school project on the Florida Panther
- Make wildlife a family affair. Display panther bumper stickers. Visit national and state parks where the panther lives. Watch TV programs about endangered species.
- Attend public meetings on panther issues. The decisions that affect endangered species are made in these forums. Make sure your voice is heard.
- Speak out every chance you get. Awareness is half the battle. Tell everyone you can about the plight of the panther.
As with most conservation issues, the struggle of the panther goes beyond the question of whether it is worth saving this particular species. If our wilderness can’t support panthers, then many other less visible species also will perish. Let’s all do what we can to ensure that future generations will know this beautiful animal and the wilderness it symbolizes.
Note: Much of the information and research on this site is courtesy of both the Florida Panther Net (http://www.panther.state.fl.us/) and The Panther Society. Our deep felt thanks goes to them for their tireless efforts to ensure the panther’s survival by educating us all.
Florida Panther News
The Florida Panther:
An Umbrella Species
An umbrella species is a species that, through its protection, protects other species that live within its habitat.
The Florida Panther Refuge provides habitat for a total of 126 bird species, 46 species of reptiles and amphibians, 22 species of mammals and a large variety of fish.
Closed areas in the refuge protect habitat for 24 species of endangered, threatened or plant & animal species of special concern status.
YOU CAN HELP
Save the Florida Panther from Extinction
• Don’t be an “Island of Knowledge”
Teach others what you have learned and correct myths about the Florida Panther that are repeated all too often. Visit and learn from websites such as www.floridapanther.org, www.fws.gov/floridapanther/ , bigcatrescue.org
• Slow down when you’re driving
Over 10% of the dwindling Florida Panther population was killed in 2009 by vehicle strikes. Watch out for all wildlife. Know what to do if you encounter a panther in the wild; i.e. make yourself appear larger, avoid crouching or bending over, do not run, give the panther an easy way to escape.
Historic News About the Florida Panther
Small Population Only One Danger Facing Panthers
By WILL ROTHSCHILD Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Published: Mar 26, 2006
OCHOPEE – The future of the Florida panther is playing out here on Loop Road, a 26-mile route carved through the middle of Big Cypress National Preserve.
Considered the most endangered mammal on the planet when it numbered perhaps two dozen a decade ago, the panther has rebounded to about 80.
The number of people living in South Florida also has climbed dramatically in the past 10 years. With more people moving into subdivisions chiseled into the scrubby pinelands and hardwood hammocks that once buffered panthers from urban life, a growing chorus of observers say Florida has reached its limit of cats.
Sustaining the recovery, in fact, promises to be much trickier, hinging as much on social and political considerations as scientific ones. How those questions are answered could determine whether panthers hang on or whether South Florida decides it no longer has the room or the will to protect them.
The number of panthers killed on roadways this year has equaled the total from all of 2005.
Perhaps a more telling indicator of the trouble facing the panther is the increasing pressure to remove a particular cat from the wild this year.
Panthers are known for their stealth, but this cat, known as No. 124, has been anything but for more than two years. She has been seen dozens of times prowling along Loop Road homesites in the Big Cypress hamlet of Ochopee.
Leaders of the Miccosukee Indians who live there worry she will attack pets or livestock or, though a panther attack on a person has never been reported, one of the children who play along Loop Road and the fringes of wild Big Cypress.
As the debate continues, about 124 and how to handle panther-human interaction – not to mention whether the Florida panther’s DNA has become so corrupted by a cross-breeding program that it might not even be the Florida panther anymore – some scientists think the risk of extinction is as great today as ever.
Larry Richardson, a federal biologist who has studied the cats for 20 years, is among them.
“It’s always dangerous when you make strides because people can get apathetic and think everything is OK,” Richardson says. “But I’m more concerned today than I was [10 years ago].
“I see a crash coming.”
Shrinking Habitat And Inbreeding
Florida panthers once enjoyed their perch atop the food chain across a vast dominion. They roamed the entire Southeast, from the Carolina mountains to the Louisiana marshes. They were all over the Florida peninsula, from the Panhandle to the Everglades.
Then they were hunted and their habitat was paved over and fractured until the cats were hemmed into the relatively tiny pocket of South Florida, a mere 5 percent of their original range.
The tight quarters meant major problems for the panther. By the mid-1990s, it had become so inbred that its male offspring were being born without testicles.
The panther is a subspecies of the cougars found in abundance across the Western United States. Scientists transplanted eight Texas cougars into the panther population in a last-ditch effort to solve the genetic problems and save the animal. It worked: the panther’s numbers have roughly quadrupled since then.
Also, after more than 20 years of capturing, collaring and tracking panthers, about 70 percent of what has been identified as the cat’s primary habitat zone has been protected.
“We have to tackle the remaining 30 percent to maintain continuity,” said Darrell Land, the panther team leader with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “I’m cautiously optimistic. We certainly see more panthers today, so I’m optimistic that preservation methods have worked.”
The Case Of No. 124
As the fiercely territorial panther’s population grows and young males continue to seek ranges outside protected public lands, the cats increasingly are running headfirst into the region’s ravenous growth and development machine.
The removal of 124 would be the second this year of a cat roaming near people in Big Cypress. In February, panther 79, an 11-year-old male nicknamed Don Juan, because he had fathered about 30 kittens, was removed from Big Cypress and shipped to a nature center outside Jacksonville after repeatedly killing livestock in the Pinecrest area.
Perhaps no case better illustrates the complexity of panther management and the uncertainty of the cat’s future than that of 124.
One of an estimated 14 to 17 reproducing females left, 124 has birthed litters each of the past two years, making her “one of the most significant panthers out there,” according to Laura Hartt, a panther expert with the National Wildlife Federation. It is rare for female panthers to give birth two years in a row.
Some suspect Loop Road residents and people who work at the environmental education center have been feeding deer in the area, which has attracted them and which, in turn, has attracted 124.
At a meeting in Naples this month, a team of scientists reaffirmed its position that 124 has not displayed the type of behavior that mandates removal.
Meanwhile, the Miccosukkee tribe continues to petition federal officials to take her out, warning the panther could be shot if she displays threatening behavior.
Still A Panther?
Then there’s the DNA question.
Biologists say the animals maintain certain characteristics that are purely Florida panther, such as facial structure.
But the DNA question is clearly an issue that makes panther advocates uncomfortable, raising the specter that the Florida panther is gone and the cross-bred cats that remain in South Florida don’t qualify for protection.
Ultimately, the underlying issue is the same: the Florida panther is in trouble. Where people differ is on why and what should happen next.
Meanwhile, back on Loop Road, alligators and wood storks hang out in roadside canals framed by a tangle of bald cypress, orchid-adorned slash pine and palm trees. On a mild mid-March afternoon, it can be hard to imagine there is something wrong if you’re just passing through.
It can be hard for the people who live here, too. Though Stacey Cypress, 18, lives on Loop Road, she had not heard about her tribe’s fight to remove 124 until a visitor told her about it last week.
Despite the rampant fear and anxiety sweeping the area detailed in tribal letters to wildlife officials, no one has told this new mother and caretaker of three younger siblings that a renegade panther was about.
Her 8-week-old daughter on her lap, Cypress sat on her front porch and nodded toward the lush wilderness.
“We’re living in their habitat,” Cypress says. “They’re endangered, right?
“So why move them out of here? What’s the point of that?”
Panthers on the Prowl: Florida’s big cats rebound
Last update: 22 May 2004
But remain at mercy of politics, science and growth
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER Environment Writer
This is the first of a two-part series on the plight of Florida’s efforts to rescue its panthers from the ill effects of encroaching humankind. Part two will appear in Monday’s editions.
They’re elusive and sightings are rare, but nearly three times as many Florida panthers now roam the wilds of South Florida than 20 years ago.
Efforts to bring the panther back from the brink of extinction produced dramatic success. Breeding and genetic restoration projects were accomplished. Vast tracts of habitat were saved. From an estimated 30 panthers, officials say the population now numbers at least 87, not including kittens.
The birth rate has outpaced the number of panthers that die in auto collisions, but biologists say territorial fights are a bigger and just as lethal threat.
Savvy and smart, panthers are efficient at prowling their territories for prey and water. But that prowess can’t always help when they’re attacked by disease, other panthers or even mosquitoes. It leaves them powerless in the face of the sprawling growth that threatens their habitat and competes for vacant land. The Florida panther is still endangered.
And, during the past year, simmering squabbles over panther protection have bubbled into very public debate among scientists, the state and federal agencies they work for, environmental groups and developers.
The crux of the dispute is over panther habitat — chiefly, how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluates panther habitat and recommends what developers should do to make up for damage.
The wildlife service oversees panther protection and recovery in Florida. The service works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which also oversees panther protection and monitors the panther population. Both agencies work on restoration projects and conduct and support scientific research.
The federal agency’s panther plans put priority on preserving forested land, saying it’s the cat’s favored habitat. Others say different types of habitat, such as grassland and farmland, are just as important and that faulty science has prevented the federal agency from adopting that principle in permitting.
A federal complaint filed May 3 is the latest in a series of disputes and allegations.
Andrew Eller, a biologist with the federal wildlife service for 17 years, alleges in the complaint that his employer knowingly uses flawed science, which creates poor permitting decisions that allow crucial panther habitat to be destroyed.
A scientific panel, commissioned by the wildlife service, drew similar conclusions in December after reviewing research used by the state and federal agencies to set policy. The panel issued a report, scathing in some sections, saying the service should immediately stop using its modeling method that puts priority on forested habitat.
The panel of four experts from outside Florida also recommended the appointment of an independent scientific steering committee and a re-analysis of existing data. It chided the agencies for allowing panther research to lag.
The wildlife service also is embroiled in at least two lawsuits raising similar concerns brought against it by the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Panther Society.
Officials at the state and federal level have been taken aback by the fervor of their critics.
“We are the catalyst that has helped to understand how to protect the panther and its habitat,” said Jay Slack, field supervisor for the federal wildlife service in Vero Beach. “We are really serious about protecting the Florida panther. It’s the right thing to do and we are bringing all of our knowledge and resources to bear on doing just that.”
Both the state and federal agencies point to the huge volume of information collected, hundreds of thousands of protected acres and wildlife underpasses built under South Florida highways.
“If you look at where cats are today compared to where they were 20 years ago, it’s been an incredible effort with significant results to further the conservation of the species,” said Thomas Eason, bureau chief of the state wildlife commission’s bureau of wildlife diversity and conservation.
“It’s been at great effort and cost to a lot of people,” Eason said, including all the Floridians who bought the 1.4 million panther license plates sold since 1993. “We’ve thrown a lot of money and resources at it and I think it’s paid off for the panther.”
The commission has monitored 132 panthers during the past 23 years, officials said.
Darrell Land, panther coordinator for the wildlife commission, has worked in the panther program for 20 years.
“I feel pretty good about it but we shouldn’t dust off our hands and act like the job is done,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go before having a population we don’t have to manage.”
The cats “will always be in danger but we’re at a point where we can keep panthers here into the foreseeable future,” Land said.
The Florida panther, a genetically distinct part of the puma family, was placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1967 because of its dramatically declining numbers. Cats that once roamed the entire Eastern seaboard were confined to a shrinking population in the lower half of Florida.
In 1979, the state wildlife commission began capturing panthers and putting radio collars on them to track their movements. They learned where the panthers were, where they traveled and how they interacted with each other and their environment.
When the panthers still ranged throughout the Southeast, experts say they periodically crossbred with Texas pumas. When that ended, the genetic variation that sustains a healthy population gradually gave way to genetic problems that come with inbreeding.
In 1995, the state and federal governments began a genetic restoration project. Eight Texas females were released in South Florida and produced 17 kittens. The last of those females were removed last fall and retired to a private wildlife conservation center.
Genetic intervention will have to continue as long as there are fewer than 100 panthers, because the cats won’t be able to find mates they’re not related to, Land said. But the next phase won’t start until more studies are completed on the long-term results of the last effort.
The panthers, meanwhile, have problems all on their own, even without human impacts.
NATURE TAKES ITS TOLL
In 2002, 30 kittens were born from radio-collared females.
“That was really an amazing year,” said Layne Hamilton, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. But, fewer than half that year’s kittens survived.
“It’s a hard life. Sometimes the mothers aren’t real experienced at raising kittens,” Hamilton said. “There are a lot of things coming at the population that are challenging us in trying to manage it and allow it to grow.”
Biologists think two of the 2002 kittens may have died from anemia from mosquito bites. Hamilton said one biologist working that summer said the mosquitoes were so thick he could hardly breathe.
Predators, road kills and feline leukemia are among the other dangers, but biologists say the biggest cause of death is territorial aggression. Hamilton said most male panthers don’t live past 18 months because they’re killed by other males, Hamilton said.
Last August biologists released two panther siblings, a male and a female, orphaned about a year earlier when an uncollared male killed their mother. Three months later, the young male was killed, apparently by the male that killed his mother. Meanwhile, the female may be pregnant by that same male.
“It’s kind of a soap opera out there,” Hamilton said. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
DEVELOPME NT VS. PANTHERS
The lack of agreement among experts about precisely what makes up ideal habitat creates confusion and conflict among developers, their consultants, environmental groups and the agencies involved in panther protection.
Generally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for permitting development projects. If the Corps decides the project may impact an endangered species, the Fish and Wildlife Service is called in.
The service, for example, consults on projects that may affect panthers within a designated priority area in Southwest Florida that includes Big Cypress Swamp, the Everglades and several preservation areas.
The permitting guidelines say the agencies are to use the best available science to evaluate direct and indirect impacts and minimize impacts where possible.
Environmental groups argue that 13,000 acres of habitat have been destroyed by development in South Florida. But the wildlife service says not all of the permitted development destroys habitat. The habitat may be disturbed and then later used again by panthers.
They say of 11,263 acres of development permitted since January 2002, 6,496 acres have been permanently preserved or improved by developers through such projects as removing exotic species and restoring native landscapes.
Since 2000, the wildlife service has been working on new guidelines to “ensure the survival and recovery of the panther.” A new panther habitat conservation plan and a landscape conservation plan to help guide property owners, agencies and permitters are expected to be released later this year, said Bert Byers, spokesman for the wildlife service’s Vero Beach regional office. The habitat plan also will include a new priority area map that will increase the area within which permit applications require federal review.
The wildlife service also is working on a revised recovery plan. The plans, required for all endangered species, spell out how the service hopes to bring the animals back to the point they can be removed from the endangered list.
The current recovery panther plan, developed in conjunction with the state and other interested parties, was last revised in 1995. Initially the service said the new plan would be ready this fall, but now reports it probably won’t be ready until 2005.
It frustrates environmental groups that the federal government moves so slowly, said Karen Hill, vice president of the Florida Panther Society.
“They keep saying they’re going to do something but we have yet to see anything,” Hill said. “The new conservation strategy for panther habitat has been dragging for years.”
The environmental groups’ lawsuit mentions that delay, stating the federal government has failed to produce “a meaningful plan” to guide development and uses bad science to issue permits.
“Developers are rapidly mining, bulldozing, clearing and paving the natural landscapes needed for the panther to survive,” the suit states.
In one suit, the environmental group wants to stop the federal permit for a 3,212-acre limerock-mining pit in Fort Myers. The groups say the buffers and other trade-offs proposed for the Florida Rock mine will not make up for the isolation of panther territories and the damage to more than 5,000 acres.
“If this rate of habitat loss keeps up over the next five to 10 years, the panthers would be facing extinction,” said the panther society’s Hill.
Both lawsuits were filed in the District Court in Washington, D.C.
In the other suit, the groups allege the service has failed to protect the panther by ignoring the concerns of its own biologists and other scientists and by putting too much emphasis on protecting forested lands and not enough on other kinds of habitat that panthers also use.
John Kostyack, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, said the wildlife groups don’t disagree with “every aspect of federal policy.”
“We praise them for the acquisitions and the wildlife crossing,” Kostyack said. “And the restoration was a big success.”
However, Kostyack said the results of the recent reviews mean “we’re going to have to change the way they develop in South Florida.”
The success of the genetic restoration program could serve as a model for a similar effort to preserve habitat, said Hill.
“The panthers were facing genetic crisis and all the agencies and conservation groups came together and did what needed to be done to save the panthers,” she said. “That’s what needs to happen again.”
Panther/cougar program appears to be working April 2004
FT. MYERS, FL (AP) — Wildlife experts say the program that put eight Texas cougars into the wilds of Florida to help the endangered Florida panther to survive is working.
Biologists say five of the eight animals released in south Florida died in the wild. (killed by hunters) The others were recaptured and removed last year, after apparently doing their jobs. (and the remaining three cats were accidently sent by the state to a canned hunt operation in TX)
If NOT for those cats, state biologists say the Florida panther would be nearly extinct today. Before 1995, the population was estimated between 30 and 50 animals. The latest estimate is between 80 and 100.
Wildlife officials released the eight female Texas cougars in Big Cypress, Everglades National Park and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Experts say the new cats are still genuine Florida panthers, since the two subspecies likely mated when their ranges overlapped more than 100 years ago.