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Our Panther Population

Florida panther
Photo courtesy of SCCF

An interesting article recently published by our friends at the Island Sun:

When Alexis Horn, public outreach coordinator for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), was growing up, she said that the Florida panther – hunted to the brink of extinction – was sort of a “mythical creature.” “When I was a kid, there were only about 20 or 30 panthers left in the wild,” Horn said during her January 12 lecture delivered at the SCCF Nature Center. “Nobody really saw them, but they knew they were out there.”

According to Horn, people used to be allowed to shoot panthers in Florida for sport or a bounty. Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi) have been listed as an endangered species since 1967 in recognition of its small population size and geographic isolation.

A native Floridian, Horn has worked in the environmental field for more than a decade. She worked as an endangered species biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, served as an adjunct professor of biology and environmental science, and ran the Florida Panther Campaign for the National Sierra Club.

During her lecture last week, Horn explained some details about the rare species, including their size, life expectancy, habitat and range – 200 miles for males; 75 miles for females. The majority of panther populations in the state are located south of the Caloosahatchee. They are most active between dusk and dawn, and eat wild hogs, deer and small mammals including raccoons and opossums. However, panthers are very shy, so they are rarely seen.

“There has never been a documented panther attack on humans,” said Horn. “They don’t want to interact with people, so there’s no need to worry about running into one if you’re on a hike.”

According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, panthers normally live in remote, undeveloped areas. However, as the number of people in southern Florida grows, there is an increased chance of an encounter with a panther. Florida panthers are found primarily in the Big Cypress/Everglades ecosystem in Collier, Lee, Hendry, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties.

While Horn stated that the current estimate of Florida panthers is between 100 and 180, their numbers declined to roughly 30 cats in the early 1980s. Severe inbreeding resulted in many health and physical problems, including heart defects and bent/disfigured tails. A genetic restoration project in 1995, in which eight cougars from Texas were released to breed with Florida panthers, was successful in improving the genetic health and vigor of the panther population.

The biggest threat to the future of the Florida panther, Horn noted, is habitat loss. A number of panthers also die each year due to vehicle strikes on roadways. Vehicular deaths of panthers in Florida have increased annually over the past four years, going from 14 in 2013 to 25 in 2014, 30 in 2015 and 39 last year.

“As Florida’s population grows, this is going to continue to be an issue,” said Horn.

In addition to promoting smart growth, education and living cooperatively with these big cats, one of the growing solutions to assisting the Florida panther population is wildlife corridors. The Florida Department of Transportation has constructed more than 70 wildlife underpasses on busy state roads throughout south Florida, each costing from $1 million to $2.5 million.

Once through the underpass, panthers – and other animals – must swim across the Caloosahatchee, and researchers have only recorded a handful of full-grown male panthers doing so. Horn pointed out that in 2016, the first female panther since 1973 was recorded roaming north of the Caloosahatchee.

“(Wildlife corridors) are all about making them safe and allowing them to move between those areas,” added Horn. “They work, they’re really effective and are incredibly important to put in.”

Horn’s lecture on Florida panthers will be repeated on Tuesday, February 14 at the SCCF Nature Center, located at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road. The program will begin at 10 a.m. The cost to attend is $5 for adults; no charge for children and SCCF members. For more information, call 1-239-472-2329 or visit www.sccf.org.

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