Fewer than 100 Florida Panthers are alive in the wild today, hanging on in the southern tip of Florida. The big cats were hunted to near extinction by the mid-1950s. Today, primary threats are habitat loss and fragmentation, driven by human population growth, which has tripled in Florida since the animals were declared endangered in 1967. Image: Monica R., courtesy Flickr
Dear EarthTalk: What's the story with the Florida Panther these days? Is it still teetering on the brink of extinction, or is it on the rebound?
—Alex T., via email
One of more than 20 subspecies of cougar and native to the southeastern United States, the Florida Panther is most certainly still highly endangered. Biologists estimate that less than 100 of the animals are alive in the wild today, hanging on in the southern tip of Florida below the Caloosahatchee River. Their current range represents less than five percent of where they originally roamed across Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and parts of Tennessee and South Carolina.
Perceived as a threat to humans, livestock and game animals, the Florida Panther was persecuted and hunted to near extinction by the mid-1950s. Today, primary threats are habitat loss and fragmentation as a result of human development. According to Defenders of Wildlife, the main culprits in the decline of the animals’ numbers are: urban sprawl; the conversion of once diversified agricultural lands into intensified industrial farming uses; and the loss of farmland to commercial development. Other factors include collisions with automobiles, territorial disputes with other panthers as habitat shrinks, and inbreeding resulting from their isolated population. Additional threats include mercury poisoning from the fallout of coal-fired power plants, parasites, and diseases such as feline leukemia and feline distemper.
Efforts to help the Florida Panther recover have had limited success. Many public agencies and nonprofit groups have worked together to try to bring back the panther—Florida’s state animal—since it was first listed as endangered by the federal government back in 1967. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), panthers require large areas of contiguous habitat: Each breeding unit of one male and two to five females requires some 200 square miles of territory to thrive. Biologists report that a population of 240 panthers requires between 8,000 and 12,000 square miles of habitat and sufficient genetic diversity in order to avoid inbreeding as a result of small population size. The introduction of eight female cougars from a closely related Texas population in 1995 helped mitigate inbreeding problems, but most analysts fear that the effort was too little, too late for the threatened cats.
Since the animals were first listed as endangered, the human population of Florida has more than tripled, meaning that rescue efforts are swimming against the tide. Defenders of Wildlife reports that, since 2004, human-panther encounters have been on the rise, as have documented instances of panthers preying on livestock and pets. In response, the USFWS, the National Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have drafted a landmark Florida Panther Response Plan, which guides game managers and law enforcement officials in handling such interactions in ways that ensure public safety while recognizing the need to preserve dwindling Florida Panther populations.
Readers can help by getting educated about the plight of the big cats and pressuring their elected officials to take action. Another way to help is by supporting wildlife groups working on the issue. Defenders of Wildlife’s “Adopt a Panther” program, for one, puts donations into public education, preserving habitat and promoting sound transportation planning to prevent panther deaths on Florida’s roads and highways.
CONTACTS: Defenders of Wildlife, www.defenders.org; USFWS, www.fws.gov; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, www.myfwc.com.
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