The Everglades Florida Panther:  Can It Survive?

Panther In The Florida  EvergladesThe Florida Panther is a subspecies of North American Cougar, and was chosen as the Florida state animal in 1982.  It is also know as puma, or mountain lion.

The Florida panther is unique to South Florida, and lives in forests and swamps within the range of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. There are only an estimated 100-120  Florida panthers still living in the wild, and although recovery efforts have been proposed for the panther, the efforts have fallen short to date.  Establishing an environmentally safe habitat for the Florida panther is crucial to its survival.

Florida panthers are solitary, and territorial animals.  They do not range together, except when they are mating, and require approximately 200 square miles of habitat.  Male panthers can weigh up to 160 pounds, and each male breeds with two to five females.  The females produce from one to six kittens, approximately every two years, with a  gestation period of 92-94 days.  The kittens will remain with their mothers until they are from twelve to eighteen months old. The kittens are spotted in color when they are born, and have blue eyes.

As they mature, the spots fade to become a completely tan coat, and the eyes yellow in color.  The adult panther has a creamy white underbelly, with black tips on its tail and ears.  They do not roar, but instead make their own sounds which are similar to whistles, chirps, growls, hisses, and purrs.   The panthers usually have a lifespan of ten to twelve years.

The Florida panther living in the Florida Everglades National Park, prefers the pine and hardwood hammocks, which are dense stands of pine or hardwood trees, growing a few inches above elevation.  They prey upon white-tailed deer, wild hogs, rabbits, raccoons, armadillos, birds, and mice.  The panther helps maintain a natural balance of population levels of other species in the wild.

The Florida panther’s scientific classification, or taxonomy is unresolved, and that has caused issues in determining just how many actual Florida panthers there are in the wild, and also whether they should be listed as endangered or not.  When grouped as North American Cougars, their number rises, thus causing a dilemma for the Florida panther’s survival exclusively.

The classification variations between 30 subspecies of cougar, result from variables of adaptation to climate, terrain, and prey, all of which factor into the genetic makeup of their offspring.

In the 1970’s, there were only approximately thirty Florida Panthers in the wild.  This number has increased, but due to grouping the species, the Florida panther is not on the endangered species list, as of 2008.  This may suggest that without reclassification, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ceases to recognize the Florida panther as a unique subspecies.

Although  various measures were taken to protect the panther in general, such as protecting them from legal hunting in 1958, being listed as an endangered species in 1967, and being added to Florida state’s endangered species list in 1973, the Florida panther exclusively, is still in danger.  In actuality, there would need to be at least 240 Florida panthers in order to be removed from the endangered list, and without incorporating other subspecies, they should remain on the endangered list.

The Florida Everglades National Park protects the southern portion of the original Everglades, and is known to be the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.  It was created to protect the ecosystem that already existed as opposed to just safeguarding the unique geographic feature it is.

Now, due to human population growth, and major construction, the Everglades is being transformed, leaving the Florida panther with a less than satisfactory habitat in which to live.  With agriculture and development intensifying in southern Florida, the grasslands are becoming polluted, affecting the prey, and ultimately the Florida panther population.

The region is also being stressed by the invasion of plant species which are disruptive and of little use to the panther.

The Florida Panther Scientific Review Team (SRT) drafted a new Panther Recovery Plan due to  failure of previous plans made by the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) in 1995.  It seems that the FWS used a knowingly flawed science, in the assessment of the Florida panther’s habitat, in order to promote real estate development in southwest Florida.

The FWS has not scientifically designated critical habitat for the panther, thus creating turmoil between various restorative agencies as to what to do next.  The restoration task force has recently, in 2011, again initiated the effort to rid the grasslands from phosphorous and other pollutants, yet strong directives, and agency unification is needed to proceed.

Proposals have been made recently, to create additional habitat, enhance existing ecosystems,  breed Florida panthers in captivity, and to increase genetic variability through cross-breeding with closely related species. The Florida panther is a unique population however, and to remain unique, would entail only Florida panther breeding and relocating them to southern Georgia, or Northern Florida in order to build the population exclusively.

As of now, only forty to sixty percent of Florida panther kittens live to young adulthood. Habitat loss from pollution, and human population, death due to attacks from other panthers, road kill, disease, infection due to injury, and starvation, take the lives of others.

The management or mismanagement of the habitat for the Florida panther will determine their ability to survive.  Instead of being a cold case file, the Florida panther needs a unique classification, and agencies who work diligently together, in order to save its own unique species.

Progress is slow, but with better public education, and help from the people of Florida, perhaps the Florida panther will not fade away, and will continue to remain a strong symbol of the state of Florida.