Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Frequently Asked Questions About Florida Panther NWR

History of Florida Panther NWR. Credit: USFWS

History of Florida Panther NWR. Credit: USFWS

Where is the refuge located?

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) consists of 26,400 acres and is located within the heart of the Big Cypress Basin in southwest Florida. It is located 20 miles east of Naples, Florida at the northwest corner of the intersection of Alligator Alley (I-75) and State Road 29. The refuge is due west of the Big Cypress National Preserve and due north of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Picayune Strand State Forest.

What is the history of the refuge?

For hundreds of years, towering cypress trees up to 130 feet tall and 25 feet in circumference dominated the landscape of what is now Florida Panther NWR. In response to the Second World War, logging of cypress trees throughout the Big Cypress basin started in 1944. An average of 1,000,000 board feet per week was harvested from the swamp using temporary railroads. The logging operations started in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and moved north through the refuge area. By 1957, the last of the trees were harvested, except for those found in the Corkscrew Audubon Preserve. Slowly the cypress swamps have recovered as a new generation of cypress replaces the fallen giants. Many of the logging scars have healed over the past five decades. The old raised railroad beds are still utilized by refuge staff to access portions of the refuge.

Immediately prior to refuge establishment, the land was owned by the Collier family and was primarily used for private hunting leases and cattle grazing. A few home sites and hunting camps were located on the land. In 1989, the US Fish & Wildlife Service purchased the initial 24,300 acres from the Collier family for $10.3 million dollars. In 1996, the refuge was expanded to 26,400 acres with the addition of more Collier family land through the Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988.

Why was the refuge established?

The Florida Panther NWR was established in 1989 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the Florida panther and its habitat. The refuge is located in the core of occupied panther territory, and protection of this important area was needed to ensure that not only panthers and their habitat were protected, but also important wildlife corridors that connected adjacent private and public lands. Wildlife crossings under I-75 and State Road 29 ensure that wildlife, including panthers, can travel safely between the refuge and adjacent lands. On average, 5-11 panthers utilize the refuge each month.

What habitats are found on the refuge?

The refuge is characterized by lush tropical vegetation with over 700 species of plants. Cypress strands meander through the refuge. Tropical hardwood hammocks, which are dominated by ancient live oaks, are found along upland ridges. Acres of slash pine and saw palmetto lie adjacent to wet prairies blooming with glades lobelia, tickseed and prairie milkweed. Rare orchids and bromeliads are found throughout this mix of habitats. This diversity depends upon the seasonal dry and wet cycles that define the south Florida climate. Summer brings daily rain showers that flood much of the refuge. The surface water slowly sheet-flows across the flat landscape. This water is not only the lifeblood of the refuge, but recharges the underground aquifers that supply the refuge's urban neighbors. As the days shorten, the daily rain showers disappear, and for the next six months, the wet prairie and swamps dry out.

Alligators on Florida Panther NWR. Credit: USFWS

Alligators on Florida Panther NWR. Credit: USFWS

Is there a lot of wildlife on the refuge?

The refuge is home to many species of wildlife. The refuge is a perfect example of how important the Florida panther is as an umbrella species. Black bear, bobcats, fox, and coyotes prowl the refuge. Panthers find plenty of prey to feed upon due to the healthy white-tailed deer population. Wild turkeys are frequently seen on the refuge, as are many species of song birds, wading birds, hawks, and owls. At night, bats feed on myriads of mosquitoes. The seasonal and permanent ponds on the refuge provide habitat for amphibians and many species of fish. Alligators and diamond-back rattlesnakes also frequent the refuge, as do many other species of reptiles. The diversity of habitats on the refuge provides a healthy environment for an array of wildlife species.

What kind of management is done on the refuge?

All habitat management activities on the refuge benefit the Florida panther and are intended to improve, restore, and maintain optimal conditions for the panther and other plants and animals that depend on healthy native habitats. Prescribed burning and non-native (exotic) plant removal are two of the most important habitat management techniques.

Another management activity includes cabbage palm removal in selected area of the refuge. Over the past 40-50 years, roads and canals have lowered water levels on the refuge and altered plant communities. Cabbage palms invaded habitats that used to be wetter, such as the prairies and hydric pinelands. Based on historical aerial photographs, the refuge staff determined that cabbage palms were not present in high densities in these habitats prior to drainage of the refuge. The high density of cabbage palms adversely affected the grasses and low-growing native plants in the prairies and pine flatwoods, making these areas less desirable for white-tailed deer, the primary prey of panthers. To restore these areas to historic conditions, and, consequently, improve the habitat for white-tailed deer, cabbage palms are mechanically removed or killed with herbicide.

Why does the refuge remove non-native invasive plants?

As people moved into Florida, they brought non-native plants with them to landscape their property. Some of these plants escaped cultivation and became established in the natural areas of Florida. Several of the most prolific species on the refuge are Brazilian peppertree, melaleuca, cogon grass, and old-world climbing fern. These species are extremely invasive and can limit or prevent native plants from growing in natural areas. Large acreages of these invasive plants change the fire regime of the area, reducing fire in some cases and increasing its destructive effects in other circumstances. Non-native plants also degrade wildlife habitat. By removing these plants from the environment through the use of mechanical removal, herbicides, or biological means (e.g. release of specific insects that parasitize or consume a specific plant species), vegetative communities are improved for wildlife.

Cigar Orchid. Credit: USFWS

Cigar Orchid. Credit: USFWS

What is the Native Orchid Restoration Project?

Of the approximate 43 species of native orchids known to exist in south Florida, only about 30 species have been sighted in the past 15 years. Habitat destruction, modification and fragmentation are serious threats to native orchids. Another threat is wild collecting or poaching of epiphytic orchid species. The goal of the Native Orchid Restoration and Conservation Project is to protect native orchids of south Florida through the use of modern propagation science, recovery and translocation methods. A laboratory and associated facilities are located on the refuge. This project will involve and benefit state and federal land management agencies to collectively conserve, restore and protect native orchids in south Florida. The University of Florida is a primary partner in the research of propagation techniques and natural history of south Florida's native orchids.

For more information about Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, view our Fact Sheet [pdf].


Last updated: March 28, 2011