The Florida panther has made a dramatic recovery. Whether it will continue to survive now depends on whether we protect its shrinking habitat.
Photo by Stuart L. Pimm
By Stuart L. Pimm
Special Contributor to NatGeo News Watch
There’s a small plane circling me a thousand feet up and its annoying noise makes it difficult for me to hear the Cape Sable sparrows I’m trying to census for my research. On these April mornings at sunrise, there’s usually nothing but bird songs here in the middle of the Everglades.
Then I understand why the plane is there: its crew are tracking a Florida panther carrying a transmitter and the animal must be close to me. What a thrill! This big cat almost went extinct, and did go extinct in Everglades National Park. It’s presence near me is wonderful—it’s back, testimony to a very successful and unusual conservation effort.
Whether the panther can survive in the long term is now the subject of a battle over a key provision of the law that has kept it alive–the Endangered Species Act.
NGS illustration of Florida panther by Walter A. Weber
Florida panthers once occurred across the southeastern U.S., but their range shrank as human settlement expanded. By the time it was declared a Federally Endangered species in 1967, only a few individuals remained in southwest Florida.
With such few individuals, soon every cat was related to each other. And with inbreeding came a variety of genetic problems that reduced the animals’ ability to reproduce. “The only solution was to bring in ‘new blood’–female panthers from Texas,” Sonny Bass of Everglades National Park told me. “It was very controversial, but it worked very well indeed.”
Bass and colleagues released eight Texas females in 1995. “Five bred, and now most of the panthers have a Texas ancestor,” Bass said. Their offspring spread more widely and recolonized Everglades National Park, including the animal near me as I did my survey. [Read the National Geographic News story about this: Texas Cats Help Triple Florida Panther Population.]
Bass should know. “In the early days of my panther work, I was in a small plane seven days a week tracking animals,” he said. Before and after the Texas introductions there was a major effort to find and radio-collar every cat and to follow its movements.
Photo courtesy FWS
A lot of panthers–especially males–die on roads and at night. Five have been killed on the roads this year, a couple of dozen in each of 2007 and 2008.
As cats disperse looking for new territories they cross roads. Nothing in their evolution prepares them for cars traveling at high speed.
While some of the cats moved back into the National Park, most live in the western Everglades, in the region known as Big Cypress. They are generally more wooded.
Panthers in Immediate Jeopardy
It’s these cats that are in immediate jeopardy. There are many new towns planned–one to be called “Big Cypress”–part of the sprawl of new housing developers plan to build inland from Florida’s southwest coast.
Joe Browder is the long-term environmental leader who brought the land now called Big Cypress National Preserve back into the U.S. National Park system. He explained to me the reason why Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and other groups have recently asked the Secretary of the Interior to assure that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not reject the groups’ petition to designate key areas in southwestern Florida as “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act.
“Secretary of Interior Salazar should designate critical habitat for the panther because designation not only defines those areas needed for the species to survive, but also provides some later opportunity to discourage developers from building in the wrong places. Designation is an essential first step to make the planning process effective,” Browder told me.
“Without designation, there’s a much higher probability that developers will build their roads and cities on lands the panthers need, so the open space in the planned development may make the real estate more attractive, but won’t protect the panther from traffic deaths and loss of prey.”
“To escape extinction, the panther needs the right lands protected.”
As someone who studies species extinction–and how to prevent them–I share Browder’s concerns. The panthers in south Florida have had a miraculous initial recovery, with the help of some sexy Texans. But to escape extinction the panther needs the right lands protected, something that can be done and still leave developers room to build new communities.
The Florida panther is now the only large cat east of the Mississippi. The wild areas of Florida would be somehow just so much tamer were the last one to die in a head-on collision with a car on a Federal highway.
Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”
Earlier NatGeo News Watch posting by Stuart Pimm:
Additional information about the Florida panther:
The Genetic Rescue of the Florida Panther (Stuart Pimm’s research)
Florida Panther Recovery Plan (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Florida Panther Net (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
Florida Panther (National Wildlife Federation)
Florida Panther (Defenders of Wildlife)
Florida panther poster courtesy FWS