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Improving Prospects for Florida's Panthers
by Ken Warren
Photo Credit: Tim Donovan, FWC
The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) population is steadily expanding in South Florida, after decades of effort to help the endangered wild cat rebound from just a couple dozen surviving individuals in the wild. With more panthers moving between islands of wilderness in search of food and territory, collisions between panthers and vehicles are on the rise.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) are working together to prevent collisions – now one of the leading causes of death for panthers – on State Road 80 in Hendry County, Florida.
As part of a project to widen the road, FDOT has constructed an underpass that includes an eight-foot-wide shelf on each side, which allows panthers and other wildlife to cross safely under the roadway. The agency has also built approximately 8,600 feet (2,072 meters) of fencing along both sides of the road which funnels panthers and other wildlife species to the underpass. The Service and FDOT are seeking approval from neighboring land owners to install additional fencing along the road.
“Vehicle collisions on one of the busiest roads in ‘Florida panther country’ will likely come down, while at the same time, the safe movement of this endangered species will be enabled,” says Larry Williams, the Service’s Florida State Supervisor for Ecological Services. “Preventing these collisions is good for both public safety and panther conservation.”
The Florida panther is the last subspecies of puma still surviving in the eastern U.S. Historically occurring throughout the Southeast, the panther is now restricted to less than five percent of its historic range in one breeding population located in Southwest Florida.
Florida panthers received protection under Florida state law in 1958, and eleven years later, they became one of the first animals to gain federal protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to today’s Endangered Species Act. Over the years, this charismatic wild cat has become one of Florida’s most revered species—it was even selected as the official state animal in 1982.
For four decades, the Service has worked closely with the State of Florida, as well as federal agencies and private partners to protect and recover the species. In spite of these enduring efforts, the panther population dwindled to as few as 20 to 30 individuals in the 1990s. Genetic inbreeding was rampant. The situation was dire.
Photo credit:FGCU Wings of Hope Panther Posse
Between 1991 and 1994, biologists convened workshops to discuss the genetic health of the Florida panther population. Experts in the fields of genetics, small population biology, captive breeding, panther health, and demographics participated. Scientists concluded that restoration of gene flow was critical to restoring genetic health to the Florida panther and ultimately recovering the species. A plan for genetic restoration and management was developed in September 1994, calling for an initial introduction of Texas panthers—the closest subspecies to the Florida panther. The introduction was carefully designed to not cause genetic swamping of locally adapted traits in the South Florida population.
In 1995, eight female Texas panthers were released in Florida. Five of these panthers went on to produce litters, resulting in the addition of at least 20 kittens to the South Florida population.
“The genetic restoration program restored genetic variability and vitality for a healthier, more resilient population,” says Williams.
Today, an estimated 100 to180 adult Florida panthers exist in the wild—and some believe there are even more. As a result, coupled with spiraling human population and urban sprawl, vehicular mortalities of these cats have increased significantly. As of mid-April 2015, 10 Florida panthers have been struck and killed by vehicles. In calendar year 2014, a record 25 Florida panthers were killed that way. These events underscore the need for more underpasses and other connectors between suitable panther habitat.
The location of the State Road 80 project is of particular significance because in 2012 a trail camera photographed a female Florida panther and her two kittens just south of the road—the farthest north a female has been documented since 1980. This suggests that females are getting closer to moving north of the Caloosahatchee River – a natural border between Southwest and Central Florida – for the first time in decades. In addition, in late February male panther tracks were found at the new underpass.
“In order for panthers to recover, they need to expand their range outside of Southwest Florida,” says Williams. “Projects like this lend a helping hand to panther recovery by connecting suitable habitat via corridors. This allows for safe and natural dispersal of panthers northward.”
Photo credit: Florida Department of Transportat
While another wildlife crossing is proposed for the State Road 80 four-lane project coming in Hendry County, FDOT has finished construction of six wildlife crossings with associated fencing in other areas along State Road 29 and 67 to benefit the panther and other wildlife.
“We applaud the cooperative efforts among FDOT, the Service, and private landowners to reduce Florida panther road deaths and to enhance Florida’s conservation network by installing highway fencing and underpasses in strategic locations,” says Nancy Payton, a field representative for Florida Wildlife Federation. “As the breeding population expands into Central Florida and beyond, these partnerships will be fundamental to the Florida panther’s recovery.”
Curbing vehicular mortalities through initiatives such as installing underpasses throughout Florida panther habitat is just one of many priorities of the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team, which consists of members representing the Service, National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other stakeholders. The team is also focused on developing techniques to obtain a better population estimate, facilitating natural range expansion, developing a genetics management plan, producing comprehensive guidance for habitat restoration and management, and engaging private landowners in panther conservation efforts.
Although, the Florida panther population has rebounded significantly over the past 20 years, this magnificent cat still has a long way to go before reaching recovery. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and other factors continue to threaten its existence. Survival of the species depends on maintaining, restoring, and expanding the panther population and its habitat, and facilitating panther conservation and recovery through public awareness, partnerships, and education.
Ken Warren, a public affairs officer in the Service’s South Florida Ecological Services Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 722-562-3909, ext. 323.
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