Sadly one of Florida’s most iconic animals is also one of its most periled. With an estimated population of 100 to 160 Florida panthers living in the wilds of South Florida, the big cat, a subspecies of Puma concolor, is dangerously close to extinction. But surprisingly these numbers are up, especially when compared to the 1970s, when fewer than 30 panthers were roaming Florida’s wetlands. Habitat loss and fragmentation, human interaction, disease, and genetic depletion had the Florida panther destined for extinction—the Florida panther was one of the first animals to be placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1973, where it has remained ever since.
But things are looking up for Florida’s big cat. Concerted efforts between United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and a host of local, regional, and national wildlife, scientific, and nonprofit organizations have helped foster a population growth that continues to today. Helping lead this charge is David Shindle (right), a Certified Wildlife Biologist and the Florida Panther Coordinator for FWS. Working with the Florida panther in some capacity since 1998, Shindle’s experience has included the survey, capture, and handling of the critically endangered cat, as well as involvement with research and monitoring projects with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida that targeted panther recovery, conservation, and management projects. His work with the Florida Panther Genetic Restoration and Management Project in the 1990s and 2000s was a vital tool in ensuring that there was a viable breeding population of panthers, helping lead to the current population boon the big cat is seeing today.
On March 24, Shindle will join the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens for its Evening Lecture Series. His Florida Panther lecture will cover the current status of the panther, and some of the projects underway designed to continue the panther’s continued population growth. The lecture will run from 6-8 p.m.; admission costs $10. To RSVP, click here.
Here, Shindle discusses some of the recent successes and threats facing the Florida panther.
While still in a perilous and precarious position, the Florida panther population has begun to grow over the past few decades. What is the current status of the panther population in Southwest Florida? Are there specific pockets in the state that they seem to thrive?
Recovery efforts to date have successfully contributed to a significant increase in the panther population over the past two decades. Panthers now occupy most available habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River. The breeding range of the panther is currently restricted to habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River, although male panthers periodically disperse out of south Florida and have been documented as far north as Georgia.
Before the lecture, guests will visit with Uno, the Naples Zoo’s resident Florida panther. Blinded by a shotgun blast and left for dead, Uno has made his home at the zoo since December 2014, receiving eight months of intensive care from zoo’s carnivore staff in its behind-the-scenes facility before taking up residence in the Panther Habitat in July 2015.
What were some of the tools/efforts that help grow the population? Are these still being enacted today?
An important recovery tool that contributed the increase in the panther population, was the genetic restoration program undertaken in 1995. This temporary introduction of female Texas pumas into the population has increased panther numbers, genetic diversity, and survival rates. Agencies continue to monitor the genetic health of the Florida panther population and if the population remains restricted to south Florida, additional genetic restoration efforts may be warranted.
What are the major threats to the panther population, and how or what can people do to help ease the pressure off these native big cats?
The major threat to the panther population is the loss and fragmentation of habitat resulting from increased human development pressure in South Florida. People can help alleviate this threat by supporting programs that provide incentives to private landowners who provide quality panther habitat and that direct urban and suburban development away from areas important to panthers. Working cattle ranches provide quality panther habitat, [but] these ranchers are under intense pressure to sell land for suburban and urban development, and those land uses are incompatible with panthers.
Panther recovery efforts will not be successful unless we have the support of private landowners and find creative ways to secure panther habitat, not only in Southern Florida, but also in areas north of the Caloosahatchee River that are critical for population expansion.
In addition to the direct threat of habitat loss, panther recovery efforts are also threatened by the lack of social tolerance for panthers, especially by folks that live in panther habitat and may be experiencing financial losses due to panther depredation on their livestock. Developing compensation programs to offset those losses and make panther recovery more compatible with working cattle ranches is a priority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we need the public’s support in these efforts.
What are some of the conservation and research projects U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently operating to help ensure the panther’s survival?
A priority conservation project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a project designed to make conserving Florida panthers more compatible with maintaining working cattle ranches. This five-year pilot program is intended to introduce the Payment for Ecosystem Services concept to ranchers in Southwest Florida. In partnership with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, financial assistance will be provided to eligible landowners to maintain and improve habitat for Florida panthers. If this project is successful, we would seek additional funding to involve more landowners and hopefully make the program permanent.