Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida.
  Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson
 
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca standing over large cat.
Photo of Florida Panther license plate.
Photo of Florida Panther crossing sign.

MOUNTAIN LIONS IN THE STATE OF FLORIDA

The Florida panther is the only known breeding population of mountain lions in the United States east of the Mississippi River. This tiny population survived early extermination by people due to the highly impenetrable Florida Everglades. It it also the only lion population to have federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the 1980's, the Florida panther population was down to only a few dozen inbred cats, and researchers released female lions from Texas to help bolster the population. Today, Florida panther numbers have rebounded, but their habitat continues to shrink; resulting in increased roadkill and fights to the death with other panthers for territory.

SUMMARY: Mountain Lions in the State of Florida




Local Name: Panther

Scientific Name: Puma concolor coryi

Note: The Florida panther was originally considered a subspecies of Puma concolor. Due to increased knowledge of the species, as well as advances in genetic research, scientists no longer consider the Florida panther as a unique subspecies though it still maintains the name.


Photo of panther habitat in southeast U.S. from Chris Beldin 2009.

Panther Habitat and Population in Florida

Many government agencies and NGOs assert that there are between 100 to 160 panthers residing in Florida. However, in 2008, a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission on the status of the Florida panther stated that the panther population was estimated to be approximately 100 animals and had remained at this level for several years. It was also implied that a large increase in population size was not expected or feasible because much of the available panther habitat in south Florida was currently occupied at capacity. The officially recognized capacity limits for the panther's designated habitat zones only allow for the accommodation of a maximum of 84 animals.

While the Florida panther once roamed throughout many of the southeastern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina), it was hunted to extinction everywhere except in the remote southwest corner of Florida where it was protected from humans by the impenetrable Everglades swamp.

Today, an area just short of 2,200 square miles is essential habitat for the Florida panther. This habitat has been broken down into three distinct categories: primary, secondary, and dispersal.

Primary Zone

  • 918,000+ acres of natural and disturbed cover types.
  • Supports the only known breeding population.
  • Might support as many as 71 to 84 panthers.
Photo of current panther habitat zones in south Florida.

Secondary Zone

  • 328,000+ acres immediately adjacent to the Primary Zone containing lower quality habitat.
  • Provides temporary habitat or refuge for panthers ranging outside the Primary Zone.
  • If restored, might be able to support 25 to 30 panthers, but current conditions could not support this.

Dispersal Zone

  • 150,000+ acres immediately north of the Caloosahatchee River.
  • Should function as a wildlife corridor to allow panthers to move out of south Florida.
  • Cannot support a permanent population.

Within the Florida panther's remaining habitat, the species appear to prefer hardwood hammocks and pinelands. The saw palmetto plant is used extensively by panthers for resting, stalking prey, and as dens for young panthers.


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.

Human-Caused Mortalities in Florida

Now that the Florida panther is listed as a federally protected species, the number one cause of panther mortality in Florida is lack of sufficient habitat.

Dead lion lying on side of road with bloody face.

Florida's crowded conditions force young panthers into situations where they have to fight older more experienced panthers to establish their territories, or if they do disperse, put them at risk of being killed in an automobile collision. The five-year average of annual panther mortalities is 25 per year, with, on average, 17 of those animals being killed by motorists.

After automobile accidents, intraspecific aggression is responsible for the next largest number of panther deaths.

Puma concolor is a species which, after dispersal, does not normally come into contact with other panthers except to breed, or on the part of females, raise their young.

Male panthers will fight and attempt to kill other panthers that enter established territories. Kittens are also at risk from male panthers since their deaths will allow their mothers to breed again. On average, intraspecific aggression is responsible for around 6 panther deaths per year, that we know of.

MOUNTAIN LION MORTALITIES IN FLORIDA
1990 - AUGUST 28, 2012
TOTAL 207
Vehicular Trauma 154
Illegal Killing 7
Natural or Intraspecific Strife 90
Research 1
Unknown / Unspecified 45
Sport Hunting 0
Depredation 0
Public Safety 0
Wildlife Services 0

You can also view the full mortality and injury list (1972 to Aug. 28, 2012).


Bringing the Florida Panther Back from the Brink

In 1950, Puma concolor coryi's status changed from a "nuisance species" to that of a game animal. This status change halted indiscriminate killing, but the Florida panther wasn't really protected until 1958 when it was listed as a state endangered species, and then later when it attained federal listing as an endangered subspecies on March 11, 1967.

In order to consider delisting the Florida panther from the endangered species list, the federal recovery plan requires:

  1. Three viable, self-sustaining populations of at least 240 individuals (adults and subadults) each have been established and subsequently maintained for a minimum of twelve years.
  2. Sufficient habitat quality, quantity, and spatial configuration to support these populations is retained / protected or secured for the long-term.
  3. Exchange of individuals and gene flow among subpopulations must be natural (i.e., not manipulated or managed).

1988, seven wild mountain lions were caught in west Texas, sterilized to prevent breeding, and released into northern Florida to study the feasibility of relocating panthers.

Photo of Florida panther being released from crate.

The results from this study were used to design and implement a second study in February, 1993 to evaluate the use of captive-raised animals in reestablishing a panther population in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Nineteen mountain lions, including 6 raised in captivity and conditioned for release into the wild, were released into the northern Florida study area and monitored through June 1995 (Belden and McCown 1996). This study found that reestablishment of additional Florida panther populations was biologically feasible.

In 1995, in an effort to reverse the effects of inbreeding, eight young-adult, non-pregnant, female, Texas mountain lions were captured and introduced into the Florida panther population.

A 1996 status report on the Florida panther by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission noted that the only documented breeding population of Florida panthers remained in southern Florida from Lake Okeechobee southward, primarily in the Big Cypress and Everglades physiographic regions. At the time it was estimated that only 30 to 50 animals, living in an area of roughly 4,000+ square miles, still remained. The Commission's analysis indicated that, "without intervention, the Florida panther population had a high probability of becoming extinct in 25 to 40 years."

The report went on to state:

The Florida panther faces the threat of extinction on 3 fronts. First, there is continual loss of panther habitat through human development. This continuing decline in available habitat reduces the carrying capacity and, therefore, the numbers of panthers that can survive. Second, genetic variation is probably decaying at a rate that is causing inbreeding depression (reduction of viability and fecundity of offspring of breeding pairs that are closely related genetically) and precluding continued adaptive evolution (Seal and Lacy 1989). Third, panther numbers may already be so low that random fluctuations could lead to extinction.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission
1996 Florida Panther Status Report

Due to many factors, including the influx of new genetic material, increased public awareness, innovative wildlife corridors across deadly highways, and the acquisition of critical panther habitat within the primary zone, Florida's panther population has, at the very least, doubled in size and stepped back from the brink of extinction. However, the inability of the species to expand beyond its tiny refuge in the Everglades will keep it on the endangered species list for a long time to come.


How to Help the Florida Panther

  1. Tell your state legislators that more critical panther habitat needs to be protected from development and resource extraction purposes and set aside for the panther, and that identified corridors need underpasses and caution signs.

  2. Slow down and pay attention, particularly around corners, when driving in rural areas where panther crossings are know to occur, especially at night.

  3. Become a voice for the Florida panther. Help build a Florida constituency for the panther by becoming a member of the Mountain Lion Foundation.


Last Update: October 30, 2013

ON AIR: Deborah Jansen on Florida Panthers

04/30/10 An Audio Interview with Julie West, MLF Broadcaster

Florida Panthers face inbreeding, habitat loss, and record-high roadkills. Hear about Wildlife Bilogist Deborah Jansen's work tracking and collaring the big cats in southwest Florida, and what the future may hold for Puma concolor coryi.

Florida Panthers Make A Love Connection

09/12/13 A 4-minute video by Breaking News

A female Florida panther makes a love connection in an amazing video that was recently released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Trail cameras set up at a private residence near Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Collier County captured a rare glimpse of a panther calling out for a mate.

FWC Releases Rescued Florida Panther Siblings

04/19/13 A 3-minute video by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists release two endangered Florida panthers in 2013, a brother and sister that they rescued as kittens about one and a half years earlier, after their mother was found dead in 2011.

How We Collar a Florida Panther

09/08/11 A 4-minute video by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Using ATVs or buggies, dogs with tracking devices, short wave radio communication and determination, the Florida Fish & Wildlife (FWC) Panther Project Team divides and sets out to catch and collar a Florida Panther. They monitor information from each panther's collar in order to ensure the species' continued recovery.

Florida Panthers Update

06/23/08 A 4-minute video by Assignment Earth

One of the planet's most endangered mammal species, Florida panthers have tripled their population to about 100 individuals during the past decade, but in a limited habitat their future survival is still in doubt.

CLICK TO VIEW DOCUMENTS ABOUT MOUNTAIN LIONS IN FLORIDA


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