The sun beat down hard and hot on the track through the piney Florida flatwoods, and the cat didnt sense the biologists truck creeping along.
It was a hot day, and her tongue was kind of hanging out. I was 15 feet behind her on a dirt road, and finally she heard my vehicle. And she bolted off in woods. And I got out and I walked down the road along the edge. And shed walked in about 20 feet. And she looked at me. I got that feeling that she recognized what I was, and then she was just off. Within half a second, she disappeared.
Larry Richardson, a supervisory biologist, has worked at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge for 22 years to make sure panthers dont disappear forever.
Its not easy. Panthers are rare, shy and more active at night. In two decades of prowling their habitat, Richardson has encountered them in the wild just 11 times. Understanding how to help the endangered panther requires patience and ingenuity.
The latest tool is a twoyear study using a network of about 70 remote trail cameras that are triggered by heat or movement. When an animal passes during the day, the cameras take a picture and a 30second video. At night, they take a flash image. (The Naples Zoo provided $15,000 for equipment; U.S. Geological Survey scientists at Marylands Patuxent Research Refuge are analyzing data.)
The studys goal is to learn more about panthers and their prey. Panthers will take rabbits, wild hogs, feral dogs, opossums, even a bear cub. On the refuge, their main targets are whitetailed deer, so helping panthers means helping deer. Its tough to count deer in the refuges vast slash pine stands, cypress domes, mixed swamps and prairies. Aerial surveys dont work well in woods. The cameras should provide some answers.
Establishing a Baseline
Southwest Florida Refuge Complex project leader Kevin Godsea says the refuge already has data showing that yearly prescribed burns of a quarter of the refuge create habitat that draws deer and the big cats within three days. Now biologists hope the camera study will help establish a baseline census so trends are easier to detect.
Florida panthers are one of Americas rarest large mammals, but they have made a remarkable comeback. In the mid1990s, only 25 to 35 breeding cats remained. The animals were so inbred that survival seemed unlikely. Introducing eight female Texas cougars changed that. They bred with Florida panthers and produced 30 kittens. Today, Florida has 100 to 160 panthers; about a dozen use the refuge as part of their home range.
The panther will be a managed species for years to come. Now, lack of space, not a restricted gene pool, is the problem. The 26,400acre refuge, 20 miles east of Naples, is a key corridor among state and federal lands that provides a haven for the cats from encroaching development. Threats remain. Cats are too often killed on highways. Sometimes male cats, which can have home range of 200 square miles, kill rivals in territorial disputes. That normal phenomenon intensifies when habitat is scarce.
For a study of panthers and their prey, about 70 remote cameras are surveying Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge night and day. From top, a panther uses a log as a scratching post; an uncollared female triggers a camera; a large young male, as evidenced by its fading spots, walks with its mother. David Shindle and Larry Richardson/USFWS
Credit: David Shindle and Larry Richardson/USFWS
Godsea says establishing panthers in areas farther upstate is the next step. Panther researchers understand that building public support for such conservation efforts is vital.
I got into this business because I love animals, says Richardson, but Im in the peoplemanagement business. And if I want to save panthers, its convincing folks that it needs to be done. Im not going to do it on my own. It has to come from everybody ... that is the brutal reality.
Research like the camera study may help convince people that panthers need more space.
John Pancake is a freelance writer who lives in Goshen Pass, VA.