Florida Panther Conservation Progress Comes with Challenges
Efforts to recover the Florida panther population are showing success with a steady rise in numbers to an estimated 100 to 160 adults of this federally endangered species living in South Florida, according to a report presented Sept. 7 to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
"Panthers are very difficult to count, but there is no question that conservation efforts have reversed the downward spiral toward extinction of this imperiled species," said Kipp Frohlich, head of the Imperiled Species Management Section at the FWC.
Last year the FWC revised its official estimate upward to as many as 160 adults in the panther's primary range of South Florida. At any given time the total number of panthers may vary, because the estimate does not include the addition of kittens or losses due to a variety of causes. In addition, there are an unknown small number of male panthers dispersed into Central or North Florida. The FWC is working with partners to develop better methods to count panthers and assess the statewide population.
In the 1970s, the panther population was estimated to be as few as 20 animals in the wild and showed signs of inbreeding. In 1995, the state, in cooperation with federal agencies, embarked on a genetic-restoration project attempting to avert extinction of the Florida panther. Eight young female Texas pumas were released into South Florida to increase the genetic health of the Florida stock. This conservation effort was intended to mimic the genetic exchange that once occurred naturally between panther populations in the Southeast and pumas in East Texas. It proved successful and resulted in improved panther productivity and health, and a growing population.
The progress made in conserving Florida's official state animal appears to be having an unintended consequence: livestock losses to cattle ranchers. Panthers normally prey on white-tailed deer, wild hogs and other game. Yet, last year the FWC began receiving reports of panthers preying on calves.
Southwest Florida cattle ranches typically are spread over tens of thousands of acres, with cows and calves dispersed on a range that includes excellent and essential panther habitat.
"Partnering with Florida's cattle ranching industry is an important part of our long-term panther recovery strategy," said Nick Wiley, the FWC's executive director. "The history of Florida cattle ranching is a rich one, and the state's cattle operations are among the largest in the country. Ranching is a critically important economic engine. It is absolutely essential to keep ranching viable in Florida, not only because of its economic value, food productivity and its place in our cultural heritage, but also because it provides valuable habitat for many types of wildlife, including panthers."
Speaking from a cattleman's perspective, Russell Priddy said, "Florida cattle ranchers understand that a balance needs to be reached between protecting endangered panthers and addressing the financial impacts of losing calves to panther predation. We will do our part, and we are expecting that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be responsive to our situation."
The FWC is addressing conflicts between panthers and human activities in several ways.
A $25,000 fund is being proposed by the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compensate ranchers who lose calves to panther depredation. The FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are working with ranchers, elected officials and conservation groups to figure out the best way to initiate this program. It is viewed as a possible first step towards more comprehensive and effective long-term solutions.
The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) will initiate a cooperative research project this fall to learn more about the panther's impact on cattle ranching by monitoring calf survival. This research, which is being funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and IFAS, is designed to provide scientific data on which factors are contributing to calf deaths on these ranches.
The FWC is also directing resources to this project. Agency staff will study individual panthers that are on or near the same ranches where the calf studies will be conducted and look at panther prey selection to determine the role that calves play in the panther's diet.
Homeowners in Southwest Florida, and Collier County in particular, have also seen an increase in cases of panthers killing pets or backyard livestock such as goats. Protecting these animals from panthers and other predators requires taking basic safety measures that have proved to be effective. The FWC recommends that people living in panther country make sure their pets are sheltered at night inside a house or kennel and small animals like goats are put in barns or pens with roofs. Installing electric fences around animal pens is another useful deterrent against panthers.
Most Floridians or visitors to the state will never get to see the reclusive long-tailed cat that grows to 6 feet or longer. They can attend the first annual Florida Panther Festival on Saturday, Oct. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at North Collier Regional Park in Naples. The purpose of the free festival is to raise awareness of the endangered Florida panther while promoting safe coexistence of people, pets, livestock and panthers. To learn more about the panther, go to www.floridapanthernet.org.