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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Natural or Intraspecific Strife||90|
|Unknown / Unspecified||45|
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:
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.
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.
Last Update: October 30, 2013