Want some good news about building up the population of a revered, but endangered, four-legged species? The Florida panther, voted as the official state animal by Florida schoolchildren in the 1980s, has been on the receiving end of special attention for more than 40 years—with positive results. Collier County residents can be proud of the rebound from a mid-1990s low count of 20 to 30 panthers, when inbreeding was challenging their survival, to a recent estimated count of 120 to 230 panthers in Southwest Florida.
“The panther population in Collier County is doing well,” reports Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Dr. Dave Onorato. “We’re in a much better position than we were 25 years ago. The population is stable, maybe even increasing, but we think we are in a good spot overall right now.” This outcome is a testament to the many individuals—from biologists to conservationists, farmers, cattle ranchers, legislators, private residents, and others—who have given their ideas, land, time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears to maintain a critical piece of the Florida ecosystem.
The biggest news for panthers developed this past summer, when Governor Ron DeSantis signed two pieces of legistlation: the landmark Florida Wildlife Corridor Act (FWCA) and Senate Bill 100 (SB 100), scrapping some proposed Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (MCORES) toll roads. The FWCA provides $400 million to create corridors that connect diverse habitats for Florida’s wildlife, including major watersheds, ranches, and forests. “This has the potential to be of great benefit for many fish and wildlife species in Florida,” Onorato comments. “Protecting vital wild habitat linkages in perpetuity via some form of protection would be a win for wildlife and improve prospects for the continued range expansion of Florida panthers to the north.” The FWCA will use some of the funds to protect Florida Forever conservation land acquisition projects and Florida wildlife projects.
SB 100 repeals the MCORES toll roads program for the Southwest Connector, although two of the proposed highway projects, the Northern Turnpike Extension and roads connected to US-19, are still on the books, awaiting further action. The challenge now is to keep recovery going in view of newer problems that cannot be solved by the panthers’ bending to the crosswinds of modern life.
Florida businesses and residents are coping with livestock depredations; a new panther illness, increased road-safety issues, development pressures, the hope for better compensation programs for cattle and hobby livestock predations, and land management issues are all swirling around Naples-area panthers
like a hurricane.
Multi-dimensional as these problems are, the overriding need for panther survival is as present as ever. This elusive apex predator plays an important role in balancing Florida’s ecosystem. “If you lose the balance between prey and predator, you’ll have an increase in your prey species, which will impact your vegetation,” explains Erin Myers, acting director of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge. “Feral hogs aren’t native and are extremely destructive. Ranchers north of the Caloosahatchee River, where there aren’t as many panthers, will tell you how much habitat destruction they cause. There are also long-term vegetation imbalance impacts affecting fire and hydrology. All ecosystems in South Florida are fire-dependent.”
Coexisting with Big Cats
The Florida Cattleman’s Association (FCA), with 3,500 members, has played a critical role in preserving panther habitat. Yet they are also facing a challenging landscape. Many support the panthers and provide much of the land on which they move from corridor to corridor. But ranchers are also dealing with calf depredations, and while there are compensation programs in place, livestock losses must be verified by officials, and sometimes, proof of panther action is elusive. Land tracts are large; day-to-day supervision is not possible. In addition, generational thinking around what is the best path forward is evolving.
Many ranching families have noble intentions and callings to continue their legacy, while the pressure to sell land to real estate developers, or for alternative land uses such as agriculture or mining, is very present.
In response, the federal and state governments, private conservation groups, and wildlife agencies work hard to mitigate problems. “The panther world is a diverse ecosystem covering several habitats, so we have to approach the situation from many angles,” says Amber Crooks, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s environmental policy manager. “First, we are looking to protect habitat in core areas. Second, we are working to preserve wildlife corridors so that animals can get from one point to another, and third, we are encouraging road builders to incorporate underpasses. Everyone agrees that the human–wildlife conflicts should be addressed, and measures to reduce them implemented.”
The Conservancy offers the Florida Panther Compensation Program, remunerating livestock keepers with 100 or fewer cattle for a panther predation. Defenders of Wildlife also help build protective pens, sometimes working with the Conservancy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Administration Livestock Indemnity Program also repays ranchers for lost cattle, but only at 75 percent of market value.
Federal guidelines make it hard to prove panther predation, adding to the frustration. Florida offers the more flexible Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has no funding this year.
Liesa Priddy, owner of JB Ranch in Immokalee, is a member of the FCA and a former FWC Commissioner. She reports the concerns many ranchers have. “On the one hand, panther habitat is decreasing, yet the number of panthers is going up,” she explains. “People with livestock feel that the carrying capacity for panthers in our area has been exceeded and, therefore, the human–wildlife conflict is becoming a greater concern. In addition, it’s almost impossible, under current guidelines, for larger ranchers to receive any compensation for cattle losses due to panther predation. What we’d like to see developed is a program that compensates landowners who provide habitat for endangered species, essentially a payment for ‘ecosystem services.”
Even with the new legislation and updates, this dedicated group of stakeholders will need to continue to overcome these problems, find new solutions, and seek out some sort of middle ground.
“For many, just knowing that the panther is out there roaming amongst the wild areas of Collier County is what makes living in Southwest Florida gratifying,” says Onorato. “The Florida panther will figure out how to survive if given the chance; they’ve done so for millennia.”
Key Kitty Facts
- Genetic restoration: In 1995, eight Texas cougars were released in southern Florida. There has been a steady increase in the panther population since then.
- Recent land parcel preservation: Cypress Cove Conservancy, Conservation Collier’s Gore Tract, Edison Farms (Lee County), State of Florida purchase of Devil’s Garden area (Hendry County), and more.
- Male panthers moving north: Trap cameras and other tracking systems are recording some panther movement north.
- Female panther reproduction north of the Caloosahatchee River: Females have been seen north of the river for the first time since 1973.
- Kitten births recorded in Collier County: Three new kittens observed in North Belle Meade, Collier County, in January 2021.
How to be a Panther Person
There are several ways to help the panther, or Puma Concolor Coryi, including what’s below:
- To report sightings of live, dead, or injured panthers, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Alert Hotline: 888-404-FWCC (3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cell phone.
- Support the Florida specialty license plate program.
- Look out for panther-crossing signs posted in neighborhoods near important habitat.
- Watch The Wild Divide (2021) on YouTube, presented by the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
- Endangered species status continues: Panthers will come off the list when there are three distinct established colonies. Today there is only one in southern Florida.
- Habitat loss: With Florida’s increasing population, development pressure continues.
- Annual panther deaths statewide: The average is about 25 per year over the past five years, due to vehicular strikes (most common), intraspecific aggression, and starvation.
- Feline leukomyelopathy: A neurological disease seen in some panthers starting in 2018, resulting in weak back legs. Research is ongoing.
Special thanks to photographer Jay Staton of Panther Cams, who captured these beautiful images of Florida’s beloved big cats using a custom DSLR Camera Trap.