Elizabeth Fleming, Florida Representative
With only an estimated 100 to 160 individuals remaining in the wild, the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is one of the most endangered mammals in the United States, and the last surviving puma subspecies in the eastern U.S. Though its historic range spanned eight southeastern states, today the panther is restricted to less than 5 percent of its original habitat, remaining as a single breeding population in south Florida.
While no one knows how many panthers once roamed the southeastern states, one estimate suggests 1,360 in Florida alone. Once European settlers arrived, clear-cutting, building and other human activities began to destroy and degrade panther habitat and break it up into disconnected fragments. Misconceptions and fear led to widespread persecution — the state of Florida even authorized a $5 bounty for panther scalps in 1887 — and panthers were practically hunted out of existence by the turn of the century. Not until 1950 did Florida end the bounty and begin to look toward the protection of the species.
When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, the Florida panther was one of the first species listed. The population at that time was only an estimated 12 to 20 individuals. Though it is still endangered today, in the decades since its listing, great strides have been made to halt the panther’s downward spiral towards extinction.
In 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued the first Florida Panther Recovery Plan to prevent the species’ extinction and to re-establish viable populations of the Florida panther in its former range. This spurred several years of progress for the Floria panther, in which it was designated the official state animal, and the Florida state legislature approved new programs to help fund panther conservation and research. The 1980s also saw speed limits reduced to 45 mph at night on certain key roads to protect panthers from being hit by speeding vehicles, and in the 1990s, the Florida Department of Transportation included wildlife underpasses and fencing along more than 40 miles of roadway. Since then, additional slow-speed zones have been designated, more crossings have been installed, and others are planned to protect panthers on dangerous roads.
The listing under the ESA also prompted federal and state agencies to purchase additional land to give panthers more room to roam. Today, Florida panthers can travel across several protected regions including Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest and Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, and the Spirit of the Wild and Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Areas. This year saw the inclusion of American Prime as protected panther habitat — a critical piece of undeveloped land along the Caloosahatchee River where panthers have crossed to expand their range northward. While most Florida panthers reside south of Lake Okeechobee, in recent years several males have dispersed northward into central and northeast Florida, and one even traveled back into its historic range in northwest Georgia by using this connection to move out of south Florida.
With such a small population to begin with and serious problems arising due to inbreeding, the FWS also had to look at how to increase the panthers’ numbers before there simply weren’t enough left in the wild to save. In fact, the IUCN Captive Breeding Specialist Group predicted that without some kind of intervention, the Florida panther population would decline by six to 10 percent each year, eventually reaching extinction. The FWS and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made the bold decision to temporarily introduce eight female pumas from Texas — animals that Florida panthers used to breed with before they became isolated in south Florida — into the Florida panther population in 1995. A recent University of Florida study concluded that without the new genetic material that the Texas pumas provided, the Florida panther population would most likely have fallen below 10 panthers by 2010. Instead, thanks to a genetic restoration program that would not have been possible without the authority of the Endangered Species Act, a much larger, healthier panther population exists today.
Despite being rescued from certain extinction, the Florida panther continues to face numerous threats due to an increasing human population and development in panther habitat. Collisions with vehicles take a terrible toll on panthers — 17 have been killed so far in 2012. And while the greatest threats to the panthers’ survival are destruction, degradation and fragmentation of habitat — something we combat by advocating for additional habitat to be protected and restored — one of the greatest impediments to panther recovery is the lack of human tolerance for living with a large predator. That’s why we have established a multifaceted outreach program that works to counter misinformation about panthers and provide people with practical solutions for living with this beautiful, wild cat so that all residents of Florida, feline and otherwise, can safely coexist.