Florida Panther

Puma concolor coryi

florida panther

Florida panther. Public Domain photograph. Credit Larry Richardson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s a story repeated over and over in Florida. Black bear, white-tailed deer, Key deer, river otter, West Indian manatee and Florida panther. Animals driven nearly to the brink of extinction, rescued at the last moment by dedicated citizens, scientists, land managers and politicians.

Of all these animals, we arguably came closest to losing the Florida panther. And while the futures for manatees and Key deer are far from certain, it might be the panther, Florida’s official state animal, that’s still the most endangered and has the most difficult path to long-term survival.

Its population is small and fragmented, and it’s less adaptable to development and human presence than other animals. Things that are minor problems for other species are major threats to panthers and in ways that aren’t always apparent. Plus, it has an image problem. It is a predator and a rather large one at that.

But what the Florida panther has going for it is the same group of dedicated citizens, scientists, land managers and politicians that saved it in the first place.

Some basics: The Florida panther is a subspecies of the animal variously known as the mountain lion, cougar and puma found from the Yukon Territory in Canada to the Andes Mountains of southern Chile. Its scientific name: Puma concolor coryi. Pumas once held dominion over all of the United States, but the panther is the last of the species found east of the Mississippi River.

Back in the day, the Florida panther roamed through Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, through the Gulf States as far west as Louisiana and into Arkansas. Now, its range is pretty much restricted to southwestern Florida. One of the goals of conservationists is to increase its range into Central Florida by creating ways for the panthers to overcome both natural and manmade barriers that inhibit their movement now. More on that in a bit.

Panthers are one of two cat species native to Florida, the other being the Florida bobcat, Lynx rufus floridanus. The two are easy to tell apart; the panther is much larger and has a tail as long as its body; bobcat tails are extremely short.

Panthers are mostly shades of brown, ranging between five and seven feet long and weighing between 60 and 160 pounds, with males larger than females. The tail is as long as the body. They are powerful animals, able to run as fast as 35 mph in short bursts and leap as far as 15 feet. They prefer to hunt by stealth, however, stalking and ambushing prey.

Panthers are habitat generalists, found in grasslands, oak hammocks, wetlands, flatwoods and scrub. They do need wooded areas with thick understories where they hunt for prey.

They do not roar, but rather growl, whistle, purr and hiss.

They are strictly carnivores, preferring to take down large animals such as white-tailed deer and wild hogs, but they’ll also eat raccoons, armadillos, rabbits and even alligators. We’ve seen one estimate that in places, wild hogs can make up as much as 40 percent of their diet.

A single panther might consume as much as 20 to 30 pounds of meat per meal. They’ll also “store” prey they’ve taken down to eat at a later time.

They will go after livestock if the opportunity presents itself, which is one of the hurdles that needs to be overcome in order to boost their range. More later.

There have been multiple claims of panthers attacking humans, but none documented, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The FWC has a guide to living with panthers. Its advice if you do encounter one of the animals: Stand tall and face it so you appear large to it and aware of its presence. Make gestures and speak in a firm voice so you appear to be a threat to it rather than the other way around.

Panther sightings in fact are rare; their numbers are small, they are reclusive animals and they tend to live in remote areas. They are also nocturnal, and wandering through panther territory at night probably isn’t a good idea, in any case.

In the wild, panthers can live as long as 20 years, more typically eight to 12.

For most of the year, panthers are solitary, territorial animals. They mark their turf using scent, clawmarks on trees and feces. A male panther will hold a territory between 200 and 250 square miles, sometimes larger, and doesn’t take kindly to intruders — males have been known to fight other males to the death over their turf and the resources that come with it, including resident females.

The exception is mating season, which runs November to March. While panthers will breed year-round, late fall to early spring is the primary time. Males will seek out and mate with multiple females within their territories; courtship and mating can take a day or last a week.

Gestation lasts three months; females “den” in saw palmetto thickets or other shrubs. A female can give birth to as many as four kittens. The youngins are gray, with blue eyes, dark brown or nearly black spots and five rings on the tail. The coloration serves as camouflage, and will slowly fade as the kittens get older, all but disappearing by six months.

The kittens will stay with mom for 18 months as they learn the ways of being a panther, including how to hunt. They start to hunt their own small prey at nine months.

At 18 months or so, the offspring begin to disperse, to find and establish territories of their own. Females move as much as 12 miles away, but might remain within a portion of mom’s range. Males have a tougher time: they typically will move 42 miles away, perhaps even farther as they face competition for land from older, dominant males.

Females mature at 18 months to two years, males at three years.

Pumas once ranged all over North America, but the Europeans who settled the country saw them as pests preying on the livestock and as competition for game. As the eastern half of the continent became more and more settled, pumas became more and more scarce. Eventually the puma became all but extinct east of the Mississippi — except for a population of the Florida panther south of the Caloosahatchee River, which runs west from Lake Okeechobee 67 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

In Florida, panthers weren’t treated any kinder. In 1832, county courts established bounties for panthers. As the state drained land for use as farms, panther habitat became fragmented, which fragmented the panther population. In 1896, naturalist Charles Barney Cory declared the Florida panther to be a subspecies, similar to pumas elsewhere but different enough in small but significant ways.

In the 1930s, the state began to wipe out a pest called the cattle fever tick by, believe it or not, eradicating white-tailed deer. Fortunately, officials came to their senses before succeeding, but they had significantly diminished one of the panther’s primary food sources.

By the 1960s, it was believed that there was as few as 10 panther adults living in the wild. A survey subsequently found 30. In 1967, the Secretary of the Interior deemed the Florida panther to be endangered under the newly past federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and later under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Panthers numbered between 30 and 50 during the 1980s and 1990s when a new threat became apparent: the lack of inbreeding and a genetic variation. Genetic defects, like crooked tails, undescended testicles and heart defects became apparent. To infuse new genes into the population, officials introduced eight female pumas from Texas into the Florida population. Five successfully breed, and their descendants roam Florida today.

The Texas population is genectically close to their Florida cousins, and back in the day when they could roam freely, the two puma types almost certainly would have interbred regularly.

Wildlife officials now estimate the panther population between 120 and 230 adults, progress no doubt but still short, perhaps far short, of the ultimate goal of a population sufficiently strong that the endangered status can be lifted.

As noted above the Caloosahatchee River runs nearly 70 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. To its south lies the primary panther population within Corkscrew Swamp, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, Collier-Seminole State Park and Everglades National Park.

Its one of the largest concentrations of preserved land east of the Mississippi River, yet it’s still too small to support a healthy panther population. Add encroaching development and human population and the need to expand the panther’s range becomes more important.

To the north of the Caloosahatchee lies federal and state conservation land, plus private land that is potential panther habitat. The problem is the Caloosahatchee itself, private lands and the network of roads and highways in between.

Males routinely are spotted north of the river, but females not so much. In fact, the FWC has tracked a male panther as far north as Georgia. Even south of the Caloosahatchee there are major barriers to panther movement — Interstate 75, State Road 29, the Tamiami Trail and a host of other roads that fragment habitat and populations, limiting genetic diversity.

They’re also a major source of panther mortality. According to the FWC, between 1981 and 2017, 59 percent of panther deaths were caused by collisions with cars and trucks. The second-largest cause was aggression among panthers themselves, likely caused by fighting over limited territory, at 13 percent.

So the solution is to provide pathways so panthers can easily and safely move across the roads and across the Caloosahatchee. That involves finding out where panthers are likely to cross and installing bridges, underpasses, culverts and drainpipes and adding shelves to highway bridges already in place.

The other half the battle is increasing landowner acceptance of the panthers, ranchers who have an economic stake in the matter as well as new residents who might find the prospect of finding a panther in their front yard a tad unnerving.

The Nature Conservancy has bought conservation easements from ranchers on both sides of the Caloosahatchee, allowing panthers cross the river and move about unvexed.

The Defenders of Wildlife and other members of the Panther Recovery Team, a mix of government, nongovernment groups and private landowners, plus the Seminole Tribe, is working with homeowners in rural neighborhoods to install predator resistant enclosers to protect small livestock and pets. The enclosures are too costly for use on large-scale ranches, so here they’re working to develop incentive plans to cover any economic loses from panther attacks on livestock.

All of this, they hope, will be enough to one day, move the Florida panther off the endangered species list. That means establishing a population of 240 adult panthers and sustaining it over 12 years.

To put an opinionated spin on the matter, that’s a goal all Floridians should support. After all, the panther is Florida’s official state animal.

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.