By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now
Florida’s housing bust may be disheartening for developers and damaging to the state’s economy, but it’s a blessing – short-lived, most likely – for one of the world’s most endangered big cats.
The Florida panther once roamed most of southeastern America, from the Carolinas to Louisiana and all over Florida. It was hunted, and then squeezed into an increasingly shrinking range as Florida’s human population boomed. Many other native species in the state have been pushed to the brink of extinction (and a couple are considered extinct).
Eventually, the Florida panther population was living in South Florida, in a tiny fraction of its original range. Their numbers fell. For a period, the panther was believed to be extinct; then investigators found an estimated 30 adults in the 1970s. All this, despite the fact that the panther had been placed on the endangered species list in 1967.
Now, three environmental groups have joined together to petition Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reserve more than 3 million acres of South and Central Florida which they say is essential to the panther’s survival.
The Center for Biological Diversity helped author a 30-plus page petition calling for more habitat for the panther, saying that previous conservation efforts – well-intentioned as they were — had not set aside enough land. Also, faulty science had led to incorrect assumptions about the panther’s behavior, range and habitat, they say
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council of Civic Associations were also authors of the petition, filed Sept. 17. The government has 90 days to respond.
Previous efforts have brought the panther population up: Today, there are an estimated 80 to nearly 200 in south Florida. That increase in numbers was partially achieved by introducing some Texas cougars, a close relative, to cross-breed. A captive breeding program was launched in the early 1990s to bring more cats into the wild. Several times over the last few decades, large swaths of land in Florida have been cordoned off from development, or limited development, to provide the panthers room to roam. Many of the cats wear radio collars so their movements can be tracked.
Why so much land? These cats, sub-species of the mountain lion, need a lot of space. The males require as much as 200 square miles to establish territory; females need less, but still as much as 80 square miles, according to Big Cat Rescue. The Florida panther is the only large feline still living in the southeast U.S.
With less space, and fewer panthers, in-breeding has led to genetic abnormalities that threaten the population. Feline leukemia has taken a toll. The crowded habitat has led to deaths: male panthers kill other males to maintain their small piece of territory.
Even though one of the state’s popular vanity license plates says “Save The Panther,” about 10 percent of the panther population has been killed by cars and trucks.
In the past, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration was faulted for not protecting the big cat’s habitat, according to the Defenders of Wildlife group. In 2004, they say, the courts revoked a Corps of Engineers permit for a rock mine. That, conservationists say, would have destroyed more than 5,000 acres of habitat. Even now, the proposed panther habitat expansion could be at odds with plans for new cities and housing development in Collier County, one report said.
Panthers are solitary creatures, and their primary food is deer, along with wild hogs and smaller animals if necessary. They are mostly nocturnal. In previous research, according to the petition to the federal government, researchers miscalculated the breadth and variety of environments the panthers require.
They have adapted to hot and humid Florida over the decades. Males can be up to 8 feet from nose to tail and weigh up to 160 pounds. They can, under the right conditions, live up to 15 years.
The proposed enlarged habitat would establish three zones, a primary zone to keep panthers alive and reproducing, a secondary zone that expands beyond the first to give the big cats more natural terrain, and a third “dispersal zone” that would allow panthers to extend their numbers north into central Florida.
A portion of the conservationists’ petition waxes eloquent about their efforts: “Nothing enhances civilization more than to reserve open lands for human contact with wild nature, and the greater the forbearance displayed the more the people in those communities may discover opportunities to enhance their own individual humanity.”
Read more about their work to preserve the panther at the Biological Diversity Web site. Interested in more about the Florida panther? PantherNet keeps tabs on them. Big Cat Rescue offers a video complete with growls, hisses and snarls from many of the world’s big cats. And if wildlife is your passion, Rare Earth Tones has ring tones featuring the sounds of endangered animals for your cell phone, including the Florida panther.
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