One of the most endangered mammals on earth, The Sunshine State's state animal – the beautiful Florida Panther – once roamed North America in much larger numbers. Currently, wildlife experts believe that only 70-80 of these cats live in southern part of the state and the plight of this animal continues to cause controversy between animal activists, politicians, and the builders who develop land that was once home to myriad cats.
Historically, the this majestic animal was not confined to this region but also roamed throughout a large portion of the southeastern United States including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and parts of Tennessee and South Carolina. Today, one finds the animals only on the southern tip of the state below the Caloosahatchee River though the occasional sightings have been spotted in the northeastern part of the state.
Organizations like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission try to educate interested citizens as to why the cat has now become peculiar to southwestern area and why it's essential for the state to preserve the open space where the animals roam.
A population density map of the United States shows that the southwestern part of the state is the largest unpopulated block of land east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of certain spots in northern New England. This is no doubt why it has left other parts of the southwest and settled in here. In addition, the climate is ideal for the animals and the variety of plants and other wildlife found here are an important part of the habitat as well.
Yet, as ideal as the our landscape appears to be for the panther, man and beast continue to be at odds as both prefer to live at higher, drier ground. However, much of the protected land where they are forced to roam – are wetlands where the animals can't find what they need to survive. Uplands are needed to ensure survival of the dwindling species. But between 1935 and 1990, experts point out, our state population increased by an average of about 2,000 people per week and the uplands were quickly gobbled up.
In the uplands of south Florida – not the wetlands - these mammals can find what they need to eat, such as hogs and white-tail deer. South of Interstate 75, where most of the panther population is now centered, studies show that hog and deer populations are low, especially in the Everglades where water levels can be particularly high.
Furthermore, the Florida Game and Water Fish Commission estimates that 53 percent of the animals currently range on private land – land that is being lost to intensive agricultural and residential development. Experts say there isn't enough undeveloped public land to accommodate the current population, small as it might be. David Maehr, former Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologist, estimates that today's public lands are only capable of supporting from 9 to 22 adult panthers.
In addition, their habitat has been degraded with the introduction of non-native plants, which reduces the amount of food available to the deer that the panther's normally hunt and eat. That means deer are scarcer in their current range. Fire suppression poses a similar problem.
Panthers have also been exposed to a variety of chemicals and pollutants, including mercury. The animals are also likely to consume pesticides through the food chain, which have a negative affect on their health and reproduction. Collisions with vehicles have also taken their toll over the years.
Helping to Solve the Problem
The Florida Panther was listed as an endangered species in 1958. By 1960, the state's population had increased to 5 million and the panthers continued to be threatened. Concerned wildlife experts and citizens of the state brainstormed to figure out ways to address the problem.
In 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve was established "to ensure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the national scenic, floral and faunal, and recreational values of the Big Cypress watershed," providing more public lands for the panther.
Soon afterwards, the legislature made it a felony to kill a panther and the first Florida Panther Recovery Plan was established in 1981. Through the 80s, the plan continued to be updated, and in 1989, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (24,000 acres) was established and additional acreage was added to Big Cypress.
In the 90s, a captive breeding program was put into place and a habitat preservation plan established. Eight female Texas cougars were introduced into southern area to restore the genetic diversity of the panther. So far, that effort has been deemed successful.
Many ask, "Can panthers survive in a population of 15 million?" Conservationists say "yes", if residents and visitors strive to respect the animal and vote to maintain open public space for reintroduction of the animal, specifically in places where they can better survive.
Contributions to organizations like Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge help these groups educate residents about panther safety and promote a better understanding and appreciation of the plight of endangered wildlife.