May 9, 2017
Christian Hunt

Panthers on the move in Florida!

For the past forty years, female panthers have been stuck in south Florida. Males have come and gone, venturing northward, but not a single female had ever migrated beyond the Caloosahatchee River—a major impediment to dispersal, and, therefore, expansion of the species. All this changed in November 2016, when a mom-to-be braved the river’s water, swam across into new territory, and carried with her the hope of an entire species.

Only months later, a camera trap captured the image of a miracle: silhouetted against a backdrop of saw palmetto, two kittens following closely behind their intrepid mother—a sight that hadn’t been seen north of the river throughout the entire history of the Florida panther recovery effort.

Panther and kitten north of the Caloosahatchee River (MyFWC)

Defenders has worked to realize this vision for years. Before we had time to celebrate, though, another female was documented north of the river, as well as a separate pair exhibiting what appeared to be mating behavior. With this massive step forward, it is hoped that these females will continue to produce kittens and carry on the northbound expansion that is so critical to the species’ recovery.

Working to Realize Panther Recovery

To protect these panthers and facilitate their continued movement, Defenders’ Southeast Team is tirelessly working to secure large tracts of core habitat, wildlife corridors, and safe underpasses. We serve on the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team as the conservation representative and, as a member of the transportation sub-team, where we work tirelessly to reduce collisions on roads. The sub-team strongly supported the project currently underway by the Florida Department of Transportation to install exclusionary fencing and two bridge ledge wildlife crossings along the last unfenced area of Alligator Alley—a deadly nine-mile stretch of I-75 that has claimed the lives of 15 panthers since 2004.

Despite highway mortalities, the Florida panther population has continued to grow. Population range estimates were revised in February 2017 from 100-180 to 120-230 adults and subadults in south Florida. But for panthers to continue to make conservation gains in the long-term, they need to establish a breeding population outside of south Florida. Indeed, projections show that, unless we continue to add conservation lands to Florida’s protected areas network, by 2070, Florida could lose more than five million acres of land to development, fragmenting wildlife corridors and impeding northward expansion of panthers.

Today, we are at a unique crossroads. With the handful of northbound females, we have the rare opportunity to safeguard the future for panthers. This will require a lot of hard work—namely, the protection of large tracts of habitat and essential travel corridors, a reduction in vehicle collisions, and the willingness of people to share the landscape with these wide-ranging predators. To realize this future, Defenders will work with partners to expand our outreach efforts north of the Caloosahatchee River. We will focus these efforts on working with stakeholders in areas with increased panther activity, especially along panther dispersal zones. We will also continue to help fund and construct livestock protection enclosures; encourage responsible practices that prevent human conflict; develop improved incentive programs for landowners who manage their properties in ways that benefit panthers; advocate for improved land use and transportation planning that prioritizes safe passage for wildlife; and collaborate with elected officials throughout Florida to advance panther recovery.

Interested in helping? You can adopt a panther.  The proceeds help fund our work with state and local officials. You can also sign up for our emails where you will get all the latest news and action alerts to support wildlife.

Author(s)

Christian Hunt

Christian Hunt

Southeast Program Associate
Christian Hunt is responsible for elevating Defenders' red wolf campaign efforts through grassroots outreach, community organizing, and strategic communications.  

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