Endangered Species Report #22
The Florida Panther

Written by: Holly L. Koppel

The Florida panther, a subspecies of the cougar, is one endangered species in Florida that stands a good chance of surviving. For years, no one even knew the panther was in any danger of becoming extinct because they are rarely seen by humans. At last count, there were only 30-50 panthers left in the wild, so steps have been taken to try to introduce more panthers and protect the remaining wild population.

Florida panthers used to range through most of Florida, and the southeast United States from Louisiana all the way up to Tennessee. Now, they are only found in the dry pine forests and marsh areas of southwest Florida. Panthers prefer these secluded environments and are unlikely to wander into agricultural areas and housing developments as they would prefer to have little to no contact with the human race.

Unfortunately due to overpopulation in the United States, the Florida panther has been forced out of its habitat. Habitat loss has been the biggest threat to the panther population. Currently, conservation groups have been trying to increase the panther population by introducing captive bred panthers into new areas of habitat. Unfortunately, the habit that panthers prefer is the most susceptible to extensive residential and agricultural development.

Recently, the Florida Panther Habitat Preservation Plan evaluated a study area of 14.4 million acres in south Florida. Of this land, 3.4 million acres are protected conservation areas with about 1.4 million acres owned and managed by federal agencies. Unfortunately, a good portion of this land that they evaluated is not suitable for panthers. They estimate that about two to three million acres of viable panther habitat will be needed to preserve this species, but finding this amount of acreage is not an easy task for conservationists.

The other major threat to the Florida panther comes from humans directly. According to conservationists, one of the main causes of panther deaths are collisions with motor vehicles. To combat this problem, bridge crossings for cars, and wildlife underpasses, have been constructed on several major highways in Florida. Each underpass is eight feet high and 100 feet across. Animals are then guided to these underpasses by a chain-link fence running along the roadway. Since the completion of the underpass on Florida's I-75 (which runs straight through prime panther habitat), panther deaths in car crashes have become nonexistent.

Other recovery efforts are currently underway to help save this species. One recovery method was to increase the population by captive breeding, and also breeding with other cougar species, such as the Texas cougar. When researchers first started studying the decline of the Florida panther, they noticed that there was a serious weakness in the panther's genetic makeup. Apparently, this was due to inbreeding within the small population that was left in the wild. Some of the weaknesses manifested themselves as: congenial heart defects, abnormally low sperm counts, and lack of sexual development in male panthers.

To combat this problem, researchers have begun to breed the Florida panther with its cousins from the cougar family. According to scientists, this used to be common practice with the species until the Florida panthers were separated from the other populations. So far, this method has been helping to increase the population and scientists hope to someday be able to release more cougars into the wild.

The fate of the Florida panther is not completely safe as more and more of the panther's habitat is destroyed everyday to create more housing developments and shopping centers for people. There are things we can do to help the species, including: being informed about the panther's habits and habitat, express your support of protecting them by writing political figures, help others become educated about the panther, and support wilderness land acquisition, and public and private land acquisition that promotes biodiversity.