The walls are closing in on the endangered Florida panther, as urban development expands. Human intervention in the southern part of the state is encroaching on the already limited amount of natural sanctuary left for this elusive cat.
Ninety-five percent of the panther’s original habitat has been destroyed due to development pushing the panther either further south stranding a single population clinging to the little bit of wild they have left, or forcing them to go north and fend for themselves in a new habitat. Today South Florida is home to around 100-160 panthers or Puma concolor coryi. A couple of decades ago the number was less than a third of that.
In 1995, eight female cougars from Texas were introduced to Florida in order to boost the panther population, which was dwindling at around 30. Though panther numbers are much higher than they were nearly twenty years ago, the panther isn’t out of the woods yet.
“The healthy amount of panthers necessary to remove it from the endangered species list would be three separate populations of about 240,” according to Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, Matthew Schwartz.
Schwartz says the shrinkage of natural habitat space is boxing the panther into the southern tip of Florida. The building of roads may be the biggest development threat closing in on the endangered panther in Florida, as car collisions account for more deaths of these big cats than any other cause.
More recently, panthers are being introduced to lands in northern Florida, causing some to contemplate the negative impact on the environment and local livestock that installing a big cat in the area could bring.
Deborah Jenson, a biologist for the Big Cypress National Reserve, believes that “it is the consensus of most biologists [in Florida] that we are at caring capacity” for the panther.
Because of expanding development panthers have reached a maximum capacity in the remaining habitat. With the population condensed in such a small area there are major concerns of inbreeding and intraspecific aggression.
Mating within such a small population has caused offspring to develop heart defects, reproductive problems and other health concerns, says Jenson.
Jenson elaborated on intraspecific aggression stating that male panthers are challenging and killing each other over territorial disputes due to the limited habitat area. There is even evidence of males killing female panthers, which was never reported until recently.
Though areas are set aside for endangered species, economic value of land trumps ecological value in today’s market. Public and private land reserved for panther habitat can still be developed if there is a substantial economic gain to be made according to a special amendment in the Endangered Species Act.
In a letter sent on May 2, 2011 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the environmental effects of a proposed gas-power plant is discussed, which is to be built in Hendry County, just north of the Big Cypress National Reserve.
“Big Cypress is the core of panther habitat,” says Jenson, providing a home to nearly a third of the remaining Florida panthers.
The proposal is to build one of the largest natural gas power plants in the country. The 3,750-megawatt plant will take up 2,200 acres in the primary habitat area. The construction will disrupt the migration pattern of not just the panthers in the area but several other threatened species.
The letter also outlines 2,660 acres of land just west of the projected plant site that is “conceptually proposed for conservation as compensation for the Florida panther.”
The Seminole Nation of Florida has organized a walk to protest against the power plant which is scheduled for April 18-21. Over 200 demonstrators from various wildlife and environmental organizations plan to march and raise awareness in the area for the Seminole Tribe vs. Hendry County case that is set to be heard on April 21.
The Florida panther is an umbrella species balancing a cycle of dozens of other species in the ecosystem and by protecting the habitat for these big cats also protects the habitats for many other threatened species.
Without a proper population of top predators, like the panther, the number of wild hogs and deer in Florida becomes out of control throwing the harmony of the ecosystem off-balance.
Deborah Jenson says that special conservation needs must be addressed in order to allow this species to thrive.
Jenson adds, “a healthy ecosystem involves a full complement of wildlife. A top predator is necessary to maintain an ecosystem.”
Wildlife conservatories struggle to provide for these elusive animals, but as development continues throughout the south Florida region the window is closing to save the endangered panther.
By Cody Long