LITHIA, Fla. – Wildlife officials found the dead panther along a rural road in Hillsborough County, Florida near Tampa recently. Apparently, a vehicle hit the 2-year-old male, killing it.
Every healthy panther death is a tragedy as the species struggles back from the brink of extinction. But one environmentalist found the silver lining in the dark cloud hovering over the cat’s crushed body.
“On one hand I’m sad we’ve lost another Florida panther, but it’s also a hopeful story that there’s enough connected wildlife habitat for a panther to make it that far north in Hillsborough County,” Carlton Ward, wildlife photographer and member of the Path of the Panther told FOX 13.
Florida panthers were almost extinct
In 1900, over 500 Florida panthers roamed not only the Sunshine State but up to South Carolina and Tennessee and as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana, according to Brittanica.com. But a 1967 survey showed only 12-20 adults isolated in South Florida, well south of Tampa.
Hunting and habitat destruction whittled down the numbers. Major highways sliced up territories preventing the cats from establishing a big enough territory. Panthers are usually solitary and males claim 120 miles to 230 square miles for their territory, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife. .
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the animal as “threatened by extinction” that year. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Florida panther was one of the first on the list.
The small group inbred. While inbreeding maintained the population, the offspring were smaller, less vital and less fertile due to genetic disorders, according to the National Wildlife Foundation.
A study written by an Ohio State researcher shows that by the mid-1990s, about 21% percent of Florida panthers had a heart problem (atrial septal defect) and more than 60% of the males had undescended testicles.
Panthers bouncing back
Biologists then introduced 8 female Texas pumas to the only breeding group of pumas in the Eastern U.S. The researcher followed up and found that only 7% as of 2019 have the heart issue while 3% have undescended testicles.
The new genetic introduction also reduced the number of cats with kinked tails and cowlicks. The undesirable traits became somewhat of a Florida panther trademark due to the inbreeding.
Panthers still need more room to roam and meet other genetic populations
The population is rebounding and healthier, but panthers are still a rare sight near Tampa.
“I’ve heard they were out there, my parents and old-timers told me they are there,” said Lithia resident, Travis Young who hasn’t heard of a panther in Hillsborough County in 20 years.
Public agencies worked with private environmentalists and landowners to establish the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Ward is one of those environmentalists. The effort patched together a corridor of 17.9 million acres.
Ranches connect to state forests to National Parks to timberland to rivers. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, passed in 2021, secured $400 million to protect the connected green space to allow wildlife to roam freely.
Some of the funds go to landowners who sell their development rights but can continue to farm the land. The agreement is called a conservation easement.
“It’s not going to be every day that a panther or a bear is traveling through but once in a generation for a panther, if they’re able to make it, that’s enough to get those genetics flowing elsewhere in the state of Florida,” said Ward.
Florida Fish and Wildlife estimate that there are between 120 and 230 adult panthers in the state thanks to the joint effort.
Invasive pythons force panthers into other territories
Now the wildlife corridor is also protecting the South Florida panthers from starvation too. The cats need to travel further north in search of food. Their favorite deer, rabbit and raccoon meals have been quickly disappearing thanks to the invasive Burmese python.
“They’re eating, basically, everything out of the Everglades. You know, before you used to see a lot of mammals,” airboat tour owner, Humberto Torres told a FOX Nation crew while filming ‘The Everglades: Preserving paradise.’ “We don’t see them anymore. They’re being eaten by the Burmese pythons, and they’re just killing the entire habitat of the Everglades.”
So the fact that the panther expanded its range, not only means there are more cats out there looking for more territory. But they are hunting lusher grounds. And maybe, as in a century ago, Georgia residents will be making panther sightings again.
So while losing the young, male panther is terrible news. That news is showing progress and hope for the endangered species’ future.