The population of the critically endangered Florida panther is estimated at 100 to 160 adults. Once ranging across the Southeastern United States, the panther is confined to south Florida in a single breeding population. These wild cats face serious threats to their survival from destruction and fragmentation of their habitat to make way for residential and commercial development, roads, agricultural and mining operations and other forms of land conversion. Wide-ranging panthers have to cross dangerous roads and highways in their search for territory, food and mates and collisions with vehicles take a toll on the small population and prevent range expansion. And one of the greatest obstacles for panther recovery is people’s intolerance for living with a large predator. Sometimes people who live in close proximity to panthers and other wildlife are unaware of actions they can take to help protect these wild cats.
This month we have been especially focused on increasing awareness about panthers. Exhibiting at festivals and other local outreach events allows us to provide information on panthers and their conservation challenges and speak directly with people who live in panther country about how to coexist with the big cats.
In 1990, the Florida Legislature designated the third Saturday of March as Save the Florida Panther Day at a time when the panther population was estimated at only about 50 panthers. This year, Governor Rick Scott issued a proclamation declaring March 15, 2014 the official day. To celebrate, last weekend the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge hosted its annual Open House. Along with Defenders’ Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator Lisa Östberg and volunteers with our Panther Citizens Assistance Taskforce (PCAT), I helped provide information about living with panthers and other wildlife at the open house. The refuge is not normally open to the public, and the event provides visitors the opportunity to explore panther habitat through swamp buggy tours and guided walks.
We’ve been a part of several events like this lately. Lisa and PCAT volunteers demonstrated the mobile predator-resistant livestock safety enclosure and provided outreach materials at other recent community events, like the Swamp Cabbage Festival in rural Hendry County and the Collier County Fair. These events attract thousands of attendees and give us the opportunity to educate residents and visitors about how to avoid human/panther conflict. They also allow us to interact with homeowners who may need our assistance in building an enclosure.
We also handed out information about panthers at the Florida Panther Day event at the Naples Zoo on March 1st. This event attracts more urban residents and out-of-state visitors, and several thousand people stopped by to meet panther field biologists, engage in children’s activities and learn about opportunities to engage in panther conservation.
We’ve been happy to be able to take part in so many events, and are grateful to all our volunteers who participated in this important work. By working together, Florida wildlife advocates help people and panthers coexist in Florida, and ensure these unique big cats survive and thrive.
Elizabeth Fleming, Senior Florida Representative