Some scientists recently recommended moving Florida panthers to other parts of their former range because their existing habitat in South Florida was becoming too crowded.
The question of what wildlife officials were going to do when their efforts to restore the Florida panther population in South Florida succeeded has haunted the program for years.
The problems with overcrowding include a limited food supply, competition for territories and inbreeding.
That’s in addition to the danger of crossing highways as local officials continue to approve more development, creating more traffic and potential human-panther conflicts.
The threat to the survival of the Florida panther from encroaching development is not a new concern.
At least as long ago as 1983 – two years before the Legislature approved what was supposedly Florida’s landmark growth management law and four years before the state launched its first major land-buying program – environmentalists raised concerns about the need to buy more conservation lands in prime panther habitat and to limit development permits in the area around the Big Cypress Swamp.
But it was also clear as long ago as the 1980s that Florida panthers roamed far from that South Florida refuge.
There were confirmed sightings as far north of Flagler County north of Daytona Beach as well as in Volusia, Orange, Polk and Highlands counties.
This dispersal continues.
A Florida panther was photographed last year at the Avon Park Air Force Range. Panthers have been spotted periodically in various parts of Polk County, mostly in the eastern section in the Kissimmee River Basin.
But there’s no evidence that there’s a breeding population in Central Florida.
However, it’s one thing for panthers to roam around Florida on their own; it’s another thing when the government trucks some upstate.
There was a plan in the 1980s to establish another Florida panther population in a wild area of between Osceola National Forest and the Okeefenokee Swamp along the Florida-Georgia border.
State wildlife officials field tested the idea by releasing some supposedly sterile (one wasn’t) Texas cougars into the wilds of North Florida. Residents said they feared for their safety and for the safety of their livestock.
Although panthers prefer hunting deer and hogs, there had been some documented cases in which cows and other livestock were killed. Wildlife officials had long recognized they would need to set up a system to compensate ranchers for verifiable losses. A couple of other things were probably at work here besides a few people being afraid of being attacked by panthers. In South Florida, animal rights groups pushed to restrict hunting in panther habitat, a move that would not sit well in North Florida where hunting remains a rural tradition that you mess with at your peril.
In addition, the idea of having another endangered species in the area that could potentially restrict economic development is probably a non-starter for business leaders who usually have a say in things in rural counties.
In the end, some of cats were shot, some were hit by cars and the rest were recaptured. The idea of establishing a second Florida population has been kind of dormant since then. Protection of the Florida panther or any other endangered species has always been a political question as much as a biological question and both sides try to score points, often through sympathetic politicians or journalists, in the battle over whose interests will prevail. The primary issue is whether Florida panthers will still be roaming Florida’s wilds, or what’s left of them, a generation or two from now.
The answer to that question is unknown. Predicted extinction dates for the cats have come and gone, and they’re still here.
But without adequate habitat, it’s only a matter of time. That leaves me to wonder when those “panther crossing” signs along State Road 60 east of Lake Wales will be pulled out and placed on display in the historical museum along with drawings of Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons.
Tom Palmer can be reached at “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”>email@example.com or 863-802-7535. Read more views on the environment at environment.blogs.theledger.com.
Today, an estimated 100 Florida panthers are there. When recovery efforts began 30 years ago, the estimated population was less than half of that.