• Print

The Journey to Recovery

The fight for preservation of the Florida Panther

Text and Photography by Remi Escudie

“I’m more optimistic today than I would have been 30 years ago,” said Land. “When I first came on there were 20-30 panthers; now we’re confident that there may be anywhere from 120 to 230 out on the landscapes—that’s a pretty significant improvement in their numbers.”

In late September 2017, a car struck an endangered Florida Panther, marking the 18th collision this year. Automobiles stuck 34 panthers in 2016, potentially accounting for 14-28% of their estimated current population.

Florida Panthers are a critically endangered subspecies of puma. They historically occupied the Gulf States from Florida to Louisiana—including Arkansas and parts of Tennessee—but their vast population decrease has limited their range to southwest Florida. The decimation of this species is predominantly due to human intervention.

“For a long time, people saw the panther as a pest that should be exterminated,” said Natasha Hartsfield, Director of Education for the Tallahassee Museum. “They posed threats to livestock and inspired fear in people, so they were hunted to the brink of extinction. We’ve see this pattern play out with numerous apex predators that humans see as dangerous.”

Large cats have long had a reputation for being vicious, dangerous creatures. Conversely, there have been no recorded Florida Panther attacks on humans in state history. This raises the question: is this fear warranted?

“Panthers are generally shy around people and don’t usually make themselves available to be seen,” said Darrell Land, the Florida Panther Team Leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They are cats, so they will be curious, but their overall nature is that they don’t look at us as a food source. If anything, they look at us as something they should keep their distance from.”

The Florida Panther has been protected from hunting since 1958, but they still experience high mortality rates relative to their population size. Some of the highest causes of death in panther populations are collisions with automobiles and confrontations with other male panthers. An adult male requires roughly 200 square miles of habitat, and when that habitat overlaps with those of other males, they will fight over the territory—often to the death.

“There’s a limit to how many cats you can pack into a box,” said Land. “When the habitats of large cats overlap, it can get messy, so we’re not going to see much increase in population by crowding more panthers into the same space.”

The largest challenge to the Florida Panther as a species is anthropogenic habitat degradation—humans have caused their range to shrink to roughly 5% of its original size. While this may not be considered the largest cause of mortality in current populations, it plays a role in the majority of issues panthers face today. Roads segmenting panther habitats cause the high rates of automobile mortalities, as well as the dangerous confrontations between male panthers with overlapping ranges.

“We’re not making more of Florida, so there will be a big challenge,” said Land. “Can we preserve enough of wild Florida to keep our wildlife intact over the next century?”

The biggest issue that ensues is how to maintain enough uninterrupted panther habitat to allow the species to fully rebound. It is not a realistic option to give back previously developed land, so utilizing and protecting currently existing potential habitats become essential to the preservation of the species. There are areas scattered around the state that, if utilized, could serve as viable panther habitats.

Programs like the Florida Panther Habitat Preservation Plan are working to connect existing protected areas to create larger habitats for panthers. With this plan, the Defenders of Wildlife seek to link the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge with the Big Cypress National Preserve. While this is a step in the right direction, the panther’s exceedingly large requirements for space necessitate areas that will often be unattainable.

“These cats are really amazing creatures, but there’s simply not enough space for them,” said Hartsfield. “It’s going to take cooperation to make impactful strides towards species recovery.”

Multiple programs are currently working on panther conservation projects; The Florida Panther Protection Plan has multiple leading conservation organizations pledged to protect a continuous tract of panther habitat, including the efforts by the Defenders of Wildlife. Audubon Florida and the Florida Wildlife Federation, among many others, are also active in achieving this goal.

In similar efforts, The Nature Conservancy is working to protect over 1,500 acres of Black Boar Ranch as panther habitat, and the Conservation Fund helped acquire 650 acres of usable panther domain in 2011. These additions to contiguous panther habitats will certainty help supplement needed space for population growth, but as long as humans continue with the pattern of habitat encroachment, supplying new space will not be a fix-all solution. The Florida Panther Recovery Plan, created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, is one of the most robust programs for panther recovery; it states that “as humans encroach in panther habitat the likelihood of human-panther interactions increases. People’s perceptions and attitudes about panthers will be a major determining factor in the success of panther recovery.”

The Future

With intense intervention by numerous wildlife organizations, as well as the implementation of stringent recovery plans, the Florida Panther has seen significant recovery over the past decades.

“I’m more optimistic today than I would have been 30 years ago,” said Land. “When I first came on there were 20-30 panthers; now we’re confident that there may be anywhere from 120 to 230 out on the landscapes—that’s a pretty significant improvement in their numbers.”

An increase in population, while undoubtedly a sign of progress, is not the whole story. Panther numbers have yet to reach the point where the species is no longer at risk, and the effects of the low period in the 1990’s may impact the future of the panther and its ability to make a full recovery.

Dr. Scott Steppan, an evolutionary biologist at Florida State University, has spent his career studying and reconstructing genealogies. As a phylogeneticist, Dr. Steppan assesses variations in species’ genetic codes to shed light on their evolutionary history.

“Certain problems can arise when population sizes dip as low as the Florida Panther,” said Steppan. “The chance of passing down deleterious genes, for example, is much higher in small populations. With so few individuals, natural selection is not able to eliminate harmful mutations as effectively, so a species can be much less vigorous than they were before the bottleneck period.”

A genetic bottleneck occurs when a population size hits an extreme low. With only few individuals available to pass on gene, 20-30 individuals in the case of the Florida Panther, there is much less variation in the gene pool. This can impact species’ ability to adapt to change in its environment; the more diverse an animal population is, the better it can handle various environmental conditions.

“The Florida Panther, since it reached such extreme lows in population size, is now more susceptible potential threats,” said Hartsfield. These threats can include, for instance, disease or climate change.

These potential risks don’t mean the panther is heading for extinction in the near future; on the contrary, the efforts to increase panther population size have often been successful, and help inspire hope for the future of the species. These threats do, however, necessitate a close watch on the Florida Panther for years to come, and show that the species still has a ways to go before it is taken off the endangered species list.

“I’m optimistic about their persistence over time,” said Land. “I don’t think panthers are apt to go extinct in the next few decades, but whether or not we can actually achieve a complete recovery is a much more complex issue.”

The future of the Florida Panther will ultimately be decided by societal priorities. In opposition to the needs of the species, human interests will inevitably arise—this conflict is as old as humanity, and will proceed well into the future.

“The management of species is a combination of both the science of biology and the consequences for American society – as soon as these fields collide, it becomes political,” said Steppan. “When you say we’re going to protect a species, that creates economic impacts for people that may have not even heard of that species.”

Environmentalists can rejoice that so many conservation and governmental organizations have chosen to fight for the official state animal of Florida, and its right to exist in its native environment. The panther will persist into the foreseeable future, but its recovery will come down to the priorities of the people, as well as their willingness to compassionately understand the Florida Panther and its needs. The fight for survival will continue on, and the fate of the Florida Panther will show much about humanity as a species.

“Each species represents a piece of the history of life – when it’s gone, it can never be recaptured,” said Steppan. “If it is a unique lineage and you let it go extinct, that can never be repaired.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

No Comments

Leave a reply

Story Page