It’s a story that might sound familiar— similar versions have unfolded with only slightly different characters. The species that we now call the Florida Panther used to roam throughout the entirety of the southeastern United States, but due to conflict with humans and our penchant for development, by the 1970s it survived only in a single breeding population of about 30 individuals in Southwest Florida.
In the 1980s, the state of Florida and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service initiated a research and monitoring program to determine the possibilities for a recovery of the species which would allow it to expand beyond South Florida. Recognizing inbreeding and a genetic bottleneck as the panther’s greatest threat, officials brought in eight female Texas Cougars, the closest living relative of the Florida panther and another sub-species of puma, which had historically bred with their Floridian counterparts. In 2003, after producing 20 kittens with the native Florida panthers, these Texas Cougars were removed from Florida and their kittens were left to refresh the genetic flow of the species.
The combination of this new genetic diversity with the conservation of public land and the investment in coexistence programs enabled the Florida Panther population to continue on the road to recovery, climbing from its decimated population of 30 cats to an official estimate of 120-230 individuals.
But the real boon came in 2016, when the first female Florida panther since 1973 was observed north of the Caloosahatchee River, which flows 67 miles from Lake Okeechobee out into the Gulf, effectively dividing Southwest Florida in half and marking an unofficial transition from the wilderness of the Everglades to the rest of the state.
Male panthers have been known for years to cross the Caloosahatchee, but the movement of this first female was of incredible significance to those following the Florida panther’s story. It showed for the first time irrefutable evidence of the species’ northward expansion, and gave hope for its long-term survival. For a species whose individual male needs a 200 square mile home range, and whose numbers in South Florida have been steadily growing, the outlook has for some time been hopeful but uncertain: for the Florida panther to survive, it would need to expand north, across the river and beyond.
While the Florida panther may not yet inhabit the hazy hills of the Blue Ridge, it would be short-sighted to dismiss this species as irrelevant to the region. This is an animal that is representative of our species’ attempt to restore an ecosystem to balance. The story of the Florida panther reveals the level of cooperation and understanding necessary to achieve equilibrium between humanity and the natural world.
Room to Roam
The world of the Florida panther grew in size when the first female crossed the river, casting out years of scientific uncertainty of when or if females would overcome this obstacle. Now, with two confirmed broods of kittens born north of the river, Panther expansion throughout the state is inevitable—although this brings with it its own unique challenges.
Chief among these challenges is the mechanics of the expansion itself. “If there’s going to be a future for the Florida Panther, we need to save a wildlife corridor that keeps the Everglades connected to the rest of the state and the rest of the country,” says Carlton Ward, Jr., founder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a non-profit organization that works with conservation organizations and private landowners to connect, protect, and restore an intact wildlife corridor through the length of the state.
While about 9 million acres of the corridor are already protected, some of these connections are very tenuous. “There are places where the corridor is a half-mile or less in width, and it’s being squeezed off on all sides by development,” explains Lindsay Cross, former executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. “Road crossings, underpasses—fatalities from road collisions are one of the biggest threats to Florida panthers right now. Some of these places are really hanging in the balance.”
Blood on the Road
Jen Korn was Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s first wildlife biologist north of the Caloosahatchee. Today, she works for a private engineering firm and coordinates the construction of wildlife crossings with the Florida Department of Transportation. Instead of attempting to build the crossings from the ground up, much of their work revolves around utilizing what’s already there.
“We find places that already have a water-control structure like a bridge, a crossing that already may be being used, and just go in and make it a little safer—add ledges and fencing beneath it. It’s a lot cheaper.”
Crossings like these are instrumental in preserving a functional wildlife corridor for panthers moving north. Death by road strike is arguably the greatest threat to individual panthers, with 30 panthers killed by vehicle strike in 2015 and close to 35 in 2016. But the crossing itself is only half of the solution—the land on either side still needs to be protected.
Korn explains that for a wildlife crossing to be truly effective, it requires the cooperation of private landowners, who could hopefully put their land into conservation easements to protect it for the panther. But in order for this to happen, these landowners must be amenable to having panthers on their land at all—a situation that often proves difficult to accept.
Can we Coexist?
It’s an unfortunate fact of nature which would be disingenuous to brush aside: Florida panthers are wild animals, and when looking for a meal, will hardly discriminate between wild and domesticated prey. Liesa Priddy is a rancher in the heart of Panther country, and has lost calves to predation.
“When my family started ranching on this property in the 1940s, there weren’t any panthers—they’d been extirpated from this area,” Priddy explains. “So it is new for us. I think people need to be very open-minded as to what the actual situation is. Panthers are beautiful animals, but you have to be realistic in this situation.”
Nearly all conservationists in South Florida will agree that ranchers are incredible stewards of the land and provide ideal habitat for panthers. But their willingness to do this relies on their opinion of the species, which can be hurt by panthers who take a bite out of their living.
“I’m not going to underestimate the challenges,” says Elizabeth Fleming, the senior Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “If that’s your livelihood, it can be expensive.”
There do exist government programs for reimbursement in the case of confirmed depredation, but Priddy warns of the difficulty in trying to comply with all of the red tape in these circumstances. “It’s very easy for the federal government to say, ‘we have programs that are going to help you,’ but what they don’t tell you is how hard it is.”
For their part, Defenders of Wildlife has provided landowners with cameras to document the level of calf predation, to help expedite this process. Furthermore, Defenders works in suburban areas with families to prevent depredations against pets and hobby livestock. In cases of confirmed panther attack, Defenders works with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to fund the construction of livestock pens, splitting the cost three ways among the conservation organizations and the family, and sometimes covering up to half the cost.
This sort of outreach and support is crucial for the panther’s future as it moves north. As Priddy warns, “until people see that their lives are not going to be negatively impacted, you’re not going to see welcome mats put out for Florida panthers north of the river.” Actions on the part of Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations can help landowners feel supported rather than abandoned, and can help them see the panther as an integral part of the environment, rather than an enemy or a nuisance.
“I’m not happy that my goat’s been taken,” says Salem Philippi, whose family had one goat killed and another wounded by an interloping Panther. “But what am I going to do? Am I going to go out there and kill every one of them because they did something to me? I don’t see it that way. Every animal plays a part in the ecosystem. We support one another. We need each other to grow.”
As the panther continues its northward migration, coexistence is essential. But in order for residents in its path to be open to the idea of coexistence, a full understanding of the species itself is necessary first. Misinformation has been rampant in recent years, spread by a small but vocal contingent of panther opponents, who more often than not are more anti-government-interference than they are anti-panther. The transformation of areas like Big Cypress has led to a backlash from a few local residents and Gladesmen over land that they feel the panther now has more rights to than they do themselves.
Media has been a powerful tool for the spread of this misinformation through various anti-panther Facebook pages which characterize panthers as dangerous predators, and a threat to every Florida resident. In fact, there has not been a single confirmed instance of Florida panther attack on a human in over one hundred years.
But media can also be a tool for fostering understanding. For Carlton Ward, this belief is at the heart of his current work with National Geographic. His forthcoming Path of the Panther project aims to utilize extensive camera-traps and storytelling to bring about a more powerful and personal connection with a species known for its elusiveness.
“The panther is a symbol,” Ward says. “It captures people’s imaginations.”
By combining the tools of biology and photography, Ward hopes to shine a light on the unseen corners of his home state, and display the value of wild Florida to those who have not experienced it for themselves.
“These parts of Florida are hidden in plain sight,” Ward says. “Not everyone has a chance to get out on a cattle ranch or head out into a swamp. Through media, we can bring these stories to people in a way that helps them understand what these animals and these lands mean to them—so that they can have the profile they need in people’s hearts and minds, and have a place in our future.”
The Future of the Florida Panther
It’s difficult to estimate the rate of the panther’s northward expansion. What we do know is that the Caloosahatchee has been crossed, and kittens have been born on the far bank. We know that male panthers expand their territory rapidly whenever they can, and that they have in the past been spotted deeper into Central and North Florida than they are currently confirmed to occupy. And we know that there does exist a Florida Wildlife Corridor stretching the length of the state, with biologists and conservationists working to ensure its continued existence.
The Florida panther will move north as quickly as it is able to escape the congestion of South Florida. The future it will face is difficult to discern. Are we as a species and as communities ready for the panther’s return? Are we ready to practice what we preach, and live next door to these animals we claim to want back?
There are clear preparations that need to be made—education and outreach are solid first steps, followed by coexistence plans that must be laid before the first panther leaves its print in fresh mud. But along with these concrete goals exists the foundation beneath them, which should by no means be neglected. And this foundation is the understanding that nature itself comes at a cost—but it’s a cost that we also must pay in order to survive ourselves.
It’s easy to see our two species at opposite ends of a spectrum: competitors for the same resources in a limited space. But this is not a zero-sum game. What’s good for the panther is often good for the person. Setting aside wild land and clean water for the panther also safeguards our own future. Protecting ranch land—prime panther habitat—from development simultaneously preserves human heritage and vital food sources. Person and panther are linked closer than many might care to imagine, and what fate awaits the panther might likely await us as well. As the human race works tirelessly to transform the landscape to suit itself, the panther comes as a reminder for balance—our two species share the same needs for survival: clean air, fresh water, open spaces, and above all an understanding that we are in fact a part of nature, not apart from it.