Today, March 18th, is Save the Florida Panther Day! The third Saturday in March is designated in statute as Save the Florida Panther Day and is officially proclaimed each year by the Governor to renew Florida’s commitment to the conservation of its beloved state animal, the elusive and endangered Florida panther. We have much to celebrate this year as the panther population has responded positively to concerted conservation efforts over the past few decades to bring it back from the brink of extinction.
Promise for Panthers
In November 2016, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) documented the first female panther confirmed north of the Caloosahatchee River in more than 40 years– a major milestone in panther recovery. In addition to this long-awaited news, the FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a revised panther population estimate noting an uptick from 100 to 180 to 120 to 230 adults and sub-adults in south Florida.
While the Florida panther population is still very small and faces many threats, it is trending in the right direction.
How did we get here?
Once ranging across the Southeastern U.S., the panther is largely confined to a single breeding population in south Florida. The greatest threat to panther survival is the loss of its habitat, which is continually being destroyed, fragmented and degraded. With nearly 20 million residents, Florida recently surpassed New York as the third most populous state in the entire country and development and road building are accelerating. Vehicle strikes are the greatest source of human-caused mortality for Florida panthers and make it difficult for them to expand their range northward. In fact, 2016 set a new and tragic record for panthers lost to vehicle collisions, with a total of 34 panthers killed.
As one of the fastest-developing states in the nation, Florida is continuing to become a more difficult place for wide-ranging species like panthers to survive. We must protect and restore the core and connective areas of habitat they need, establish more wildlife crossings, reduced speed zones on roads and promote coexistence to reduce conflict between landowners and panthers.
What’s Being Done to Protect Them
Defenders is a leader in efforts to conserve panther habitat, reduce road mortality and increase public understanding of these majestic creatures. We have been fighting for this species for more than four decades beginning with our lobbying efforts for its inclusion on the federal endangered species list.
We are proud to be the conservation representative on the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team that is working to further panther recovery efforts.
One of those efforts is a project from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to install fencing and two bridge shelving underpasses along nine miles of I-75/Alligator Alley from the Naples tollbooth to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge where 15 panthers have been killed in the last few years. This segment has become the deadliest highway for panthers in Florida and the only section of Alligator Alley that lacks exclusionary fencing. Securing these transportation improvements along such a dangerous stretch of highway is a significant achievement and will save many panthers’ lives.
This is a watershed moment for the conservation and recovery of the Florida panther. Panther advocates can celebrate this Florida Panther Day with the hope that Florida panthers may finally be able to expand their breeding range and establish new territories north of the Caloosahatchee River. In order to be successful, however, it will be essential to continue our efforts to protect habitat and promote coexistence with these amazing animals.
Celebrate Florida Panther Day!
If you live in southwest Florida, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge will be hosting an Open House today where visitors will have the opportunity to explore panther habitat on swamp buggy tours and guided walks. Defenders Southwest Florida Coexistence Coordinator Lisa Östberg and volunteers with our Panther Citizens Assistance Taskforce (PCAT) will also be on-hand to provide information about living with panthers and other wildlife.
If you don’t live in Florida, you can still join in on the fun of this important day by learning more about the plight of these endangered cats and helping to get the word out about actions people can take to help protect them. And don’t forget to check out our wildlife adoption center where you can adopt a panther. The proceeds help fund our work with state and local officials to protect essential habitat, construct highway underpasses and help maintain habitat connectivity for panthers.
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