published Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Saving Florida panthers


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Contributed photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Though this Florida panther is in a tree, the animal doesn't generally climb into such places. This panther was pursued by dogs and captured.

An effort to save the endangered native Florida panther represents a much different challenge than dealing with exotic animals that roam the southern part of the Sunshine State.

Exotics are plentiful, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokesman Darrell Land. Those include pythons, iguanas and other animals kept as pets and then released into the wilds once they became too large. Others have escaped from sanctuaries flooded by storms.

But fundraising efforts are under way to build panther numbers to at least 240. That’s the point at which they can be removed from the federal endangered list.

There now are only about 100 panthers in Florida, Land said at the 45th annual gathering of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association in Punta Gorda.

Florida panthers drew added interest in November 2008 when one was shot and killed by a deer hunter near West Point Lake in LaGrange, Ga. It had traveled an estimated 600 miles from what’s considered normal Florida panther range — an area south of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River.

Speculation about the stray panther’s mysterious route was that he had followed the northward-flowing St. John’s River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville, then traveled along other rivers to West Point Lake on the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola, Fla., 230 miles west of Jacksonville, forms much of the Alabama-Georgia border.

“We have confirmed that this was a Florida panther through genetics,” Land said. “That cat did go far. But it was actually born in South Florida. We have his dad in our genetic data base.”

What’s today known as Florida panthers once roamed throughout most of the southeastern United States, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, he said.

Habitat for the animal became limited as human development spread. Goals of the Florida project that Land heads include maintaining, restoring and expanding that habitat and to enhance the panthers’ breeding terrain north of the Caloosahatchee.

But there are some big obstacles in the drive, Land said.

“The number one cause of death among the Florida panthers are panthers killing panthers,” he pointed out.

This is surprising to a lot of people, he explained, since the only panther deaths many hear about are from being hit by motor vehicles.

Yet results from radio-collared panther studies there indicate that the road-kill rate is 18.4 percent, far less than the 38.8 percent for aggression among them the animals themselves.

“When I came on in the 1980s, we thought the population was 20-30 animals,” Land said. “We thought this would lead to inbreeding and that they would become extinct.”

Heart chambers that do not close after births are a condition of inbreeding, he explained.

“In the nineties, we knew we had to do something,” he added. “We brought in eight female puma from the state of Texas. Five of them produced litters. We still have many generations from those Texas cats today.”

Other drawbacks include a fear of danger to cattlemen by the cats, Land said.

But support for the movement has come from the likes of the Florida Rural Lands Stewardship Act of 2001 and Florida Forever. A licenseplate project for the panthers also has helped, with 85 percent of the revenue going to cat research and management, Land said.

But panthers, which average two and a half kittens at birth, roam extensively, he added. Females and males can cover 40 and 100 square miles, respectively.

Reaching the desired 240 population appears doubtful, Land admitted.

“But if you get below 50-70, they will head to extinction if you don’t intervene,” he said.

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