With an estimated 180 individuals in the wild, there is no doubt that Florida Panthers (Puma concolor coryi) need all the help they can get. A sub-species of the North American Mountain Lion, Florida Panthers have already been recipients of extensive conservation management. Yet the help they are now receiving is coming from some unexpected places.
Most people are familiar with the plight of the Florida Panther; by the early 90s a population of only approximately 20-25 individuals remained in the State as a result of human depredation and habitat conversion. Alarmed by this figure, and the reduced levels of molecular genetic variation relative to other Panther populations (indicative of high levels of inbreeding), conservation managers introduced eight female Panthers (Puma concolori stanleyana) from Texas in 1995, believed to be the most genetically similar to the Florida Panther population, to increase depleted genetic diversity, boost the number of individuals, and reverse the inbreeding that had been occurring. The subsequent Florida Panther population increase was seen as a success story- from 1996 numbers increased by 14% each year until there were at least 95 adults in 2003. Habitat was acquired and protected by both the State and NGOs, prey management was altered, and the population of Florida’s iconic cat was on the rise.
Unfortunately this trajectory has however slowed, even stagnated according to some. A male Panther requires a range of approximately 200 square miles, and the Florida Panther heartland in Big Cypress National Reserve just cannot accommodate the current population. Their population levels have exceeded the carrying capacity of their current habitat- the population cannot increase unless they expand in to new territory. We are already seeing evidence this is the case- there have been significantly more deaths than births of Florida Panthers in 2017. Although highway underpasses have been built to reduce road accidents, both vehicle strikes and intraspecific aggression were the top two causes of death this year. This tells us one thing- they need more space. And while expansive territory is available in the North of the State in the form of Ocala National Forest and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, it is just not readily accessible. A huge barrier to Florida Panther dispersal is the Caloosahatchee River. Running from the East coast to Lake Okechobee in the West, this River must be crossed to gain access to territory in the North. Navigating around the Lake is simply unthinkable- this would take them through the built up coastal areas that have spread North from Miami. So cross the River they must.
Florida Panther Crossing- Madeline Van Tassel (2012)
This is not impossible- last year, for the first time since 1973, a female Florida Panther was spotted North of the River, in the Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management area. To make matters better, cubs were spotted with the female in March! To ensure that more Florida Panthers cross the River, The Nature Conservancy has decided to take some innovative steps; recently acquiring the development rights to 460 acres of land in the LaBelle area, on the Caloosahatchee River, another step in the long-term plan to use conservation easements to ensure Florida Panthers have a route North. They have paid US $2 million to keep the land from being commercially developed, to keep it as farmland. It is hoped that this land (currently citrus groves) will provide a safe crossing space on the River, especially as it a narrower crossing point than where the first female was thought to have made the crossing.
While farming and conservation are not typically synonymous, in this case they are. Florida Panthers do not seem to mind what state the land is in, as long as there are no people or buildings around. Dan Peregrin, the farmer who owns this land is happy to be involved. Benefitting not only from the payment, he has said he ‘wanted to be a part of the (panther habitat) mitigation process’.
However, there are some who do not approve of these tactics; conservation easements have notoriously come under fire. A lot of controversy emerged when it was found that Aliese Priddy, one of the seven commissioners of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was paid US $3.75 million by the State of Florida not to develop 1,600 acres of her ranch, just North of Florida Panther habitat in Southwest Florida in 2015. This was a contentious issue due to Aliese Priddy’s views on the Florida Panther conservation. Far from Peregrin’s enthusiastic attitude towards Florida Panther habitat protection, in 2015 Priddy proposed a number of changes to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Panther Policy, arguing that the US Fish and Wildlife Service should reconsider their stance on the protective status of the Florida Panther under the Endangered Species Act, and that the concerns of private landowners should be prioritized over concerns about the Florida Panther. She was also one of many landowners who applied for an Incidental Take Permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which would have allowed her to kill among other species, Florida Panthers on her land, should she choose to develop it. Many questioned why someone so adamantly set against protecting the Florida Panther should benefit from its conservation, specifically given her role charged with protecting Florida’s Wildlife.
While farmland may just be the saving grace of the Florida Panther, and farmers and ranchers their angels in disguise, not everyone is happy with how this process has played out. Through both purchasing land and paying farmers not to develop their properties, the State of Florida and The Nature Conservancy (with the assistance of the US Department of Agriculture) have managed to provide Florida Panthers in the South with a near continuous corridor of access to new territory in the North. Whether this has been done in a way that is completely fair is a contentious issue, but it definitely seems to be saving the Florida Panther for now.
- Kreye, M. & Pienaar, E. (2015) ‘A Critical Review of Efforts to Protect Florida Panther Habitat on Private Land’, Land Use Policy, Vol. 48, pp.428-436.
- Johnson, W., Onorato, D., Roelke, M., Land, E., Cunningham, M., Belden, R., McBride, R., Jansen, D., Lotz, M., Shindle, D., Howard, J., Wildt, D., Penfold, L., Hostetler, J., Oli, M. & O’Brien, S. (2010) Genetic Restoration of the Florida Panther, Science, Vol. 329, pp. 1641-1645.
- The Nature Conservancy (2017) Florida Panthers: Crossing The Caloosahatchee. Available at: https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/florida/explore/florida-panther-kittens-north-of-caloosahatchee.xml (Accessed: 15.11.17).
- Big Cat Rescue (2015) Draw My Life: Protect Our Florida Panthers. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwoDHl808F0 (Accessed: 16.11.17).
- Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (2017) Panther Pulse. Available at: http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/panther/pulse/ (Accessed: 15.11.17).
- Gillis, C. (2017) ‘Florida Panther: Environmental Group Secures Land for Panthers, River Crossing’, News-Press. Available at: http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2017/11/06/florida-panther-environmental-group-secures-land-panthers-river-crossing/816828001/ (Accessed: 15.11.17).
- NBC (2015) Conservation Easements: Paying to Push Panthers North. Available at: http://www.nbc-2.com/story/29180766/paying-to-push-panthers-north (Accessed: 14.11.17).
- Tassel, M. (2012) Panther Crossing. Available at: https://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2012/03/20/panther-crossing-and-baseball/ (Accessed: 16.11.17).
- Wesdock, N. (2015) ‘Conservation Easement Secures Panther Habitat’, The Wildlife Society. Available at: http://wildlife.org/conservation-easement-secures-florida-panther-habitat/ (Accessed: 15.11.17).
- Feature Photo- The Nature Conservancy (2017) Available at: https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/florida/explore/save-the-florida-panther.xml