What happens when a Florida gun range owner, Defenders of Wildlife, The Naples Zoo, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service come together? PantherGate, that’s what – a Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) conservation success story you’ll want to hear all about! Each of these entities are united in their commitment to the conservation and recovery of Florida panthers. PantherGate involved the use of panther-protective fencing and gates to keep panthers and countless other animals from accessing a dangerous highway.
The story of this unique collaboration began when Matthew Pitel (AKA the gun range owner) purchased a defunct Florida prison surrounded by the wilds of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve Park which abutted highway SR 29 in 2019. Matthew didn’t just see the property as a new private gun range, he also saw it as a safe place for wildlife.
The prison already had fencing and a gate to keep panthers and wildlife from accessing SR 29, and Matthew was not required by law to add similar protective fences to his establishment. He was acutely aware, however, of the dangers for wildlife near SR 29. Teaming up with Fish and Wildlife Service’s Panther Recovery Coordinator, Defenders of Wildlife’s Elizabeth Fleming and other partners, Matthew replaced the old fencing and gates with new hi-tech gates designed to keep wildlife off the road while also allowing members to access the gun range property.
The new gates and fencing Matthew decided to invest in weren’t cheap, running $38,000. Defenders of Wildlife, the Naples Zoo and Florida Wildlife Federation contributed $7,000 to help offset some of the costs, but Matthew paid the remaining $31,000 out of his own pocket.
The greatest human cause of mortality for Florida panthers is being struck by vehicles as they travel large distances in search of territory, shelter, food and mates. Of the 27 Florida panthers that died in 2022, 25 died on Florida’s roadways. To date in 2023, six more panthers have met the same tragic fate. These losses make it increasingly difficult for the small population to expand northward, which is necessary for panther recovery.
Now for a bit of the back story on the Florida Panther. About 50 years ago there were barely 27 panthers in total in the state of Florida as populations dwindled due to human encroachment. Given the tiny population and signs of significant inbreeding, in the 1990’s wildlife agencies stepped in to prevent the Florida panther’s extinction. Temporarily introducing eight female panthers from Texas, agencies were able to bolster a healthier gene flow. Thanks to genetic restoration and other conservation actions today’s Florida’s panther population is estimated at 200.
Panthers are invaluable umbrella species with their expansive ranges – for example, a solitary male panther has an average range of 200 square miles. As panther habitat is protected, other species living within these large areas are also protected. Roads, shopping centers and housing developments destroy and fragment habitat, and create barriers for wildlife to access other habitat areas. Wildlife crossings and associated fencing help wildlife and people coexist and share the landscape.
Since the installation of Matthew’s new gate, he’s seen alligators, bobcats, deer, bears and families of wild turkeys on his property. In November 2022, he captured two panthers on video walking near the protective gate.
“Although the gate system was expensive, we all did the right thing!” Matthew wrote to his collaborators. “The panthers and other creatures are safe at Deep 50 Gun Range.”
And that’s a wrap on this success story! It’s inspiring to see different wildlife entities and an entrepreneur come together to protect and save endangered species. If you live near Florida panthers, learn how you can protect these native cats, coexist safely with them here.