Florida's population of mountain lions (known locally as panthers) are critically endangered. With less than two hundred of the elusive cats left in the shrinking everglades, urban development and highways are chipping away at the species' chances for long-term survival.
Though it may seem hopeless, conservationists are refusing to give up on America's lion. Because every individual panther plays a critical role, injured and orphaned cats are rehabilitated and released back into the wild whenever possible.
In October, a trail camera snapped a photo of a mother panther with her three young kittens. A month later, she was hit by a car and killed. This is almost always a death sentence for dependent offspring. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials set up traps in the area and were able to rescue one of the orphaned kittens before she starved. The feisty spotted 4-month old is now being rehabilitated at the Naples Zoo.
Another victory involves a 3-year old male panther who was severely injured by a car in 2014. University of Florida veterinarians repaired his broken leg and after months of rehabilitation, he was released in January into Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Fitted with a tracking collar, the cat's movements are helping researchers to better understand the habits and success rates of released panthers.
This male has impressed researchers by traveling more than 800 miles since his release less than a year ago. He initially headed towards the area where he was hit by a car, presumably also the region he called home. Then, the cat circled north past Lake Wales, east across the Kissimmee River, north again as far as Brevard County, then back south into St. Lucie County's citrus groves. He seems to be staying out of trouble and is likely looking for a territory with a few females to establish his new home range.
Panther roadkills are on the rise, especially along Interstate 75's Alligator Alley in Collier County between the Naples tollbooth and the Faka-Union Canal. This is one of the deadliest stretches of road for panthers.
The Florida Department of Transportation is now planning to improve the fencing along this 9-mile section of road. Panther fencing is typically about 10-feet tall with a barbed wire overhang. Though not very visually appealing, these fences help corral wildlife to safe crossing zones and help reduce injuries to both wildlife and motorists.
There is still a long way to go. In order to be removed from the Endangered Species List, there would need to be three separate populations of at least 240 panthers in each region. Neighboring Alabama and Georgia would inevitably have to designate habitat and connecting corridors. But in the meantime, these small victories of rehabilitation and improved fencing are giving the panther population some much needed life support.