Background and Recovery
Then and Now
Florida panthers historically ranged across the southeastern United States, as far west as Arkansas and as far north as Tennessee. When European settlers arrived in the 1600s, the clear-cutting, building and other human activities that destroy, degrade and fragment habitat began, and the fear and misconceptions that led to panther persecution took root.
By the time panthers were named a federally endangered species in 1967, a mere 12 to 20 individuals remained in a single breeding population isolated at the tip of Florida, southof the Caloosahatchee River—a tiny fraction of its former range. Today there are an estimated 100-160 panthers in southern Florida, but still just one breeding population occupying only five percent of its historic range. To improve their odds for survival, the species will need at least two additional self-sustaining populations.
Key Recovery Milestones
When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, securing panther habitat was the first order of business. In 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve were created—645,000 acres prime for panthers. In 1989, more land was set aside for the rare cats: the 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Despite protections for panther habitat, inbreeding remained a serious concern. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a genetic health improvement project: the release of eight female panthers from Texas into South Florida to breed with their Florida relatives—as they did long ago when their ranges overlapped. The project succeeded, infusing the small, isolated Florida panther population with healthy new genes, and led to the growth of the population.
The latest recovery plan, issued in 2008, is a collective effort of the Florida Panther Recovery Team, an advisory group comprising federal agencies, state agencies from throughout the Southeast, conservation groups (including Defenders) and other stakeholders. Science, outreach, education and collaboration drive this plan, which recognizes the necessity of reintroducing panthers to other areas of the Southeast to recover the species—and the great challenge that presents in the current social climate.