A Case for Panthers

Science - gamecam

In the 1970s the World Wildlife Fund, concerned about whether Florida panthers still existed in the United States, provided funding to an expert tracker to inventory south Florida for the presence of panthers.  In those days, with much of the lands east of Naples and the Big Cypress still considered wilderness, surveys were mostly conducted on horseback through many miles of swamp, pine forest and hardwood hammock.  Indeed they were found, but in relatively low numbers, but the inventory was initiated.  In the early 1980s State biologists began capturing and radio collaring panthers, continuing the inventory and beginning the process of monitoring panthers to gain understanding of their habits, habitat use and reproduction.  Florida panthers are still collared and tracked to this day.  The information gathered has led to many discoveries and research conclusions to the point where most aspects of the life history of panthers are well understood. 
Science - doe and fawnIn 1989 the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established on 26,000 acres east of Naples.   Mandated for use in the recovery of the panther, the Refuge is managed to maximize habitat conditions for these cats and their prey, white-tailed deer, while considering other species of animals and plants, and the ecosystem integrity as a whole.  In this regard, the use of fire, particularly prescribed burns, have long since been used by Native Americans and early settlers to recycle woody shrubs as soil amendments and improve forage growth for better deer nutrition.   
Implementing prescribed burns on the Refuge began in 1990.  Since that time panther inventory and monitoring raised questions as to the efficacy of fire, especially its impacts on forage growth, white-tailed deer habitat usage and the responses that panthers have when areas are managed with fire.  As a result there were three separate research studies undertaken.  First, vegetative transects were permanently established so that  periodic vegetation monitoring could be done before and after fires, which were set during the cool winter months and warm wetter summer months.  Results concluded that warm season burns, which most nearly mimicked the natural fire season, produced more diverse and faster growing forage for deer than did cool-season burns.   The second study used remote trail cameras to capture images of wildlife, most of deer, set up in multiple burn units.  After two months of operation, the cameras were removed and half of the units were burned.  A month later the remote cameras were re-established and operated for the same amount of time.  The research allowed us to measure the use of unburned and burned habitat to determine the affect fire may be having on deer.  What we found was that prescribed burns attract deer into areas where they can take advantage of the new growth of grasses and herbs that are more digestible and palatable, and thereby providing better nutrition. Now, with a robust data set and scientific rigor replacing anecdotal information, we were able to take many years of panther location data and match their locations with times and places where fires occurred.  By analyzing this geo-spatially we can determine how panthers respond to fires.  The results show that panthers are really attracted to habitats that are managed with prescribed fire for about the first 12 months.  After a year, panthers spend less and less time in burned areas; seldom visited after four years post-burn. 
Science - prescribed burnMost south Florida habitat types, particularly pinelands, are fire-maintained.  Prescribed burns are not intended to destroy the trees, but rather reduce the ground cover with low intensity flames, almost like pruning branches and mowing the lawn. The research conclusions we developed define management goals that promote warm season fires that improve the nutritional value of forage to benefit deer, thereby helping to provide a healthy and reproductively active deer population as a prey species for the Florida panther.  It is in this process of inventory, monitoring, and research; asking and answering questions about species, habitats, and management practices, that we have found prescribed fire to be a cost-effective tool that improves our management of prey, in order to have a refuge that remains a hot bed of activity for the Florida panther.