Saving Florida Panther a stalled quest

Science sidestepped under demand to build

After being driven to the brink of extinction and barely brought back, the Florida panther once again faces an uncertain future.

“While there are glimmers of hope and panthers are inarguably in better shape than they were 50 or even 15 years ago, the long-term prognosis is slim,” said Mark Parry, a biologist with the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks.

The Florida panther is one of the only two wildcats in Florida, the other being the bobcat. An elusive creature, it is known for its tawny fur, black-tipped tail, and amber eyes.

“It was identified as a specific subspecies because of the shape of its skull,” said Bob DeGross, the chief of interpretation and public affairs for Big Cypress National Preserve. “It has a different kind of nose arch than other puma subspecies out west. They call it a Roman nose. The other reason is its geographic isolation.”

During their peak, panthers roamed the southeastern United States, in states like Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  But the encroachment of people and unrestricted hunting rapidly depleted the wildcat population until it was relegated to the southern half of Florida. It was listed as an endangered species in 1967 by the U.S. Department of Interior in its inaugural cataloging t of endangered species.

When the Europeans first came to this country, they were afraid of panthers, both for their own lives and the lives of their livestock,” said Chris Belden, a panther recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “So they persecuted them. They killed any way they could, shot them, trapped them, poisoned them, and caught them with dogs. They were persecuted to the point they were endangered.”

By the early 1990s, only 30 panthers remained. Intensive inbreeding had riddled the population with birth defects such as malformed hearts, and created abnormal sperm.

“All animals have recessive genes and some of those genes are deleterious,” Belden said. “When you have a population that is so small that you have a lot of inbreeding, fathers mating with daughters, mothers mating with sons, brothers and sisters, sometimes those recessive genes become dominant. The population was on a vortex toward extinction.”

A risky experiment by the State of Florida introduced eight female cougars from Texas to help introduce genetic diversity and bolster the struggling population.

Since Florida panthers had previously bred with Texan cougars, the resulting offspring were listed as Florida panthers and were thus protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

“Some people would argue that it’s no longer a subspecies,” DeGross said. “Biologically, because they would have crossbred, that’s not really an issue. However, the state passed a law saying that even though these are hybrid cats, the offspring are still recognized as Florida panthers.”

The breeding gamble paid off and the population grew to around 100.  This exposed another problem to panther survival – a lack of sufficient hunting grounds.

“They are a top predator and they feed primarily on whitetail deer,” said Belden, the panther expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They are very efficient predators. If they stayed in a small area all the time, they would quickly kill out their food supply.”

Females require approximately 29,000 acres of land and males need around 62,000 acres of roaming ground that encompasses the territory of several females. Urban growth and development were quickly gobbling up what little land was available for panther habitats.

“They separate themselves through time rather than space,” Belden said. “They use a series of scent markers, urine markers, and it is kind of a signpost for other predators. It’s a way of maintaining a social order and mutual avoidance.”

A special report by the St. Petersburg Times in 2010 exposed a series of questionable practices by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that gets more than $1 million a year to protect the species.

Since the 1990s, the agency had allowed the development of approximately 42,000 acres that were slotted for panthers, and it had been lax in enforcing mitigation efforts, the newspaper reported.

Developers had manipulated population figures to justify the land grabs, the newspaper said.  In 2002, a team of scientists was assembled to create a report detailing how much land would be needed to protect the Florida panthers, but the report was generally ignored and the credibility of the team suffered after one member was caught falsifying data and constructing shoddy experiments.

“The service cannot legally stop development,” said Belden of the federal fish and wild life service.  “That would be like taking property without paying for it. As we review projects, we can make recommendations for how they can mitigate their developments, but we can’t really stop them. The problem with mitigation is that even though you do put habitat under protection, in the long run you are losing habitat.”

As a result, the panther population has now stagnated at 100 to 160. At least three groups of 240 panthers are needed for the species to be self-sustaining.

“The cats are not in the clear genetically and likely will not be for another 50 years or so,” said Parry, the national parks biologist.  “Had there not been a concerted effort to conserve this species, they would likely be gone already and certainly at best hanging on by a kinked tail or two.”

Government agencies now focus on simply monitoring the population. “In place of direct conservation, we have begun implementing a noninvasive monitoring approach,” said Parry, the national parks biologist.  “We intend to incorporate scat and hair collection for DNA analysis when funding can be obtained, and are opportunistically collecting these samples now for future analysis.

Parry said that while people are adamant about saving the panther, they may not be willing to make the concessions it will require.

“Many people love the idea of panthers but are not so supportive when they are suddenly in their neck of the woods,” he said. “With high public, state, and federal support, this species can survive and potentially flourish within areas of its historic range. Sadly, the reality is that the cost may be too high for most to accept.”

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