It’s that time of year again… Save the Florida Panther Week! And the celebration of Florida’s official state animal is in full swing. Where do the endangered big cats stand today? We caught up with Defenders’ Florida director Laurie Macdonald to find out.
Defenders: 2011 wasn’t a great year for Florida panthers, with a record-tying 24 deaths recorded. Are the numbers looking any better in the new year?
Laurie: The good news is, the panther population throughout the state is holding at 100-160 animals. But while that recovery is a vast improvement from the low numbers seen in the late 1960s (only 20-30 animals in the entire state), we’re not out of the woods yet—the Florida panther remains one of the most endangered cats in the world. Already, five panthers have died in 2012, with three of those caused by collisions with vehicles, reminding us we still have work to do to protect these animals.
Defenders: Accidents while crossing roads continues to be a leading threat to the recovery of these animals–what progress is being made to make Florida roads safer for panthers?
Laurie: The past few months have been exciting times for panther recovery! In December, we were thrilled to see a slow speed nighttime panther zone designated at CR 832/Keri Road, where nine panthers have been killed since 1996. And then in January, a Remote Animal Detection System (RADS) was installed along a deadly stretch of US-41 in the state’s Big Cypress National Preserve. The system is being monitored now to determine whether it is effective in detecting big cats and if it can be used in other parts of the state. These are projects that will help us make roads not only safer for wildlife like panthers, but for people too.
Defenders: Improving passage for panthers wasn’t the only good news for the endangered cats this winter, was it?
Laurie: I’m happy to say it wasn’t! Also in January, Secretary Interior Ken Salazar announced the creation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, an area north of Lake Okeechobee and valuable panther habitat. This was a huge boost for panthers, who will need even more room to roam as the population continues to grow.
Defenders: What advice can we give to Florida residents to help keep panthers on the road to recovery?
Laurie: As panthers go about their lives and raise their kittens, it’s important that we recognize how to prevent conflict situations, for instance, by securing pets and livestock at night rather than making domestic animals easy prey. And by driving carefully and watching out for wildlife, Floridians (and visitors!) can prevent panther injury and death, making the highways safer for all. This can be as simple as following day and nighttime speed limits and staying alert in case panthers or other wildlife— bear, deer, turtles, even birds— are trying to walk, crawl or fly across the road!
Be a part of the celebration! This Saturday, March 17, join Defenders and other Sunshine State residents at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge Open House. The day includes bird walks, buggy rides and tours through panther habitat. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/floridapanther.
Spring Break is around the corner. Make sure you’re ready for the road with these tips on how to drive safely in panther country.