Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida.
  Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson
 
Photo of landsacape.

HISTORY OF LIONS IN FLORIDA

A small population of Florida panthers survived early extermination by people due to the highly impenetrable Florida Everglades. The first recorded sighting of a Florida panther by a Spanish conquistador in 1513 heralded the reign of persecution against panthers for the next 400 years.
Since that early encounter, panthers have been shot on sight by livestock owners, hunted for a bounty, lost their primary prey species (white-tailed deer) due to a legislative order, and had their ever-dwindling habitat degraded or changed into human settlements and agricultural development. In 1973, they were among the first species to be listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

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The History of Lions in Florida

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

Historic figure from Florida
Scientific digram of bones found in Florida.

What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Florida, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.

Native Peoples


Historically, Florida panthers were native to the Southeastern states including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia into South Carolina as well as Florida. Like many other populations of mountain lions across North America, these cats were extirpated from their original range under the persecution and killing regimes propagated by early European settlers, who immediately set about fearfully clearing the lands of all large predators.
Indigenous tribes occupied the land for thousands of years as nomadic hunters and farmers before Europeans arrived. These tribes hunted mammoths, bison, giant tortoises, rabbits and alligators among other animals. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans originally lived in what is now Florida include the Calusa, Timucua, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole.
The Choctaw knew the panther as ‘koi,’ the Muskogee Creek knew the panther as ‘kaccv, the Timucua called panther ‘yaraha’.

The Seminole were originally an alliance of northern Florida and southern Georgia tribes who banded together in the 1700s to fight European invaders from Spain and France. The original homelands of the Creek and other tribes were in northern Florida but since tribes of southern Florida had been mainly shipped to Cuba by the Spanish, the Seminoles retreated south, where descendants remain today. Florida remained under Spanish rule until 1821.

Hunting panthers was historically part of the Seminole religious and cultural tradition where the hunter even ate the panther to gain spiritual knowledge and energy of that animal. In 1987 Seminole Chief Billie was prosecuted by the U.S. government for killing and eating an endangered Florida panther. Part of the defense argument pointed out the irony of the panther becoming endangered due to the white man’s commercial development and habitat destruction of the Everglades while a Native American, Chief Billie, was the only person ever to be prosecuted for killing an endangered Florida panther.

Spanish Occupation

The first recorded sighting of Puma concolor on the North American continent occurred in Florida. In 1513, a Spanish conquistador, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca spotted a "lion" near the Florida Everglades.

That sighting was the beginning of negative interaction between humans and panthers in this state for more than 400 years. During that time period Puma concolor coryi was shot on sight by livestock owners, hunted for a bounty, lost their primary prey species (white-tailed deer) due to a legislative order, and had their ever-dwindling habitat degraded or changed into human settlements and agricultural development.

The U.S. acquired Florida from Spain by treaty in 1821. After that, settlers began to arrive by steamboat in the 1830s and land was cleared for Florida’s first railroads. A bounty was immediately placed on panthers in 1832 in all Florida counties and the unregulated eradication of the cats had begun. In 1887, the State of Florida authorized a $5 bounty on every panther killed and the only thing that gave panthers respite from persecution was the deep, dark Everglades. This vast area of remote swampland remained an impenetrable tract of safety for the few panthers who were able to escape relentless persecution and retreat to the southern tip of Florida.

In the early 1990s, the panther population was down to less than 50 individuals. Genetic defects from inbreeding were making reproduction difficult and put the population in greater jeopardy for diseases and early death. Eight female mountain lions from Texas were relocated to southern Florida to help revive the gene pool and all of their offspring are considered to be Florida panthers.

Today, the Florida panther is one of the most endangered mammals in the U.S. with only an estimated 100-160 individuals remaining in the wild.

Fur trade


In the 1600s, the fur trade in the Americas became globalized and furs obtained from Native Americans were shipped to Europe where they were in high demand. Europeans imported goods the Indians wanted and were able to trade for the furs. In 1602, the Company of New France was given a royal charter and exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic.

Bounty


In 1832 a bounty was placed on panthers in all counties. Then in 1887, the State of Florida authorized a $5 bounty on every panther killed. (As noted in text above)

Sport and Recreational Hunting


In 1950, the Florida panther was regulated as a game species with hunting seasons. Soon after that, in 1958, due to the decreasing population of the species, the panther was listed as a state endangered species. In 1967 the Florida panther was listed as endangered by the Federal Government and immediately added to the newly created Federal Endangered Species list upon its creation in 1973.

Florida's History of Panther Management

The first recorded sighting of Puma concolor on the North American continent occurred in Florida. In 1513, a Spanish conquistador, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca spotted a "lion" near the Florida Everglades.

That sighting was possibly the last benign interaction between humans and panthers in this state for more than 400 years. During that time period Puma concolor coryi was shot on sight by livestock owners, hunted for a bounty, lost their primary prey species (white-tailed deer) due to a legislative order, and had their ever-dwindling habitat degraded or changed into human settlements and agricultural development.

The Florida panther didn't receive any protection from humans prior to 1958 when it was listed as an endangered species under state law. By 1996, there were only 30 to 50 panthers still alive in Florida, and the only reason that many survived is because the Everglades have long prevented easy access to mankind.


Important Dates in the History of the Florida Panther

  • 1832 - Bounty placed on panthers in all Florida counties.
  • 1887 - State of Florida authorizes a $5 bounty for every panther killed.
  • 1937 - Florida legislature passes a bill to eradicate the white-tailed deer due to disease.
  • 1946 - Florida's panther listed as a subspecies of Felis concolor in both North and South America.
  • 1950 - Panther regulated as a game species in Florida.
  • 1958 - Florida panther listed as a state endangered species.
  • 1967 - The Florida panther is listed as endangered by the Federal Government.
  • Photo of Florida panther.
  • 1973 - Florida panther is added to newly created Federal Endangered Species List.
  • 1981 - First Florida panther recovery plan.
  • 1982 - Based on a vote by Florida's schoolchildren, Puma concolor coryi is designated as the state animal.
  • 1986 - Three wild-caught, female Texas mountain lions are brought to Florida to test the possibilities of captive breeding.
  • 1988 - Seven wild-caught mountain lions, captured in west Texas are released in northern Florida to study relocation possibilities.
  • 1989 - The Florida panther National Wildlife Refuge is established.
  • 1991 - Florida panther license plates go on sale.
  • 1993 - 19 mountain lions, (11 females and 8 sterilized males - both captive-raised as well as wild-caught) are introduced into the local panther population to study the biological feasibility of reintroduction.
  • 1995 - Eight wild-caught female mountain lions are captured and released in an effort to reverse the effects of inbreeding.
  • 1996 - The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission estimates that there are only 30 - 50 panthers remaining in Florida.
  • 2004 -1.4 million panther license plates have been issued, generating nearly $40 million.
  • 2010 - US Fish & Wildlife Service petitioned to list the panther's habitat as critical.
  • 2012 - US Fish & Wildlife Service's critical panther habitat petition denied.
  • 2013 - Environmental groups file lawsuit to protect the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida panther from off-road vehicles.


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