Florida panthers are making a remarkable comeback. Where once as few as 12-20 of the big cats remained in the wild, there is now an estimated population of 100-160 adults and subadults living in south Florida.
But the progress made in conserving Florida’s official state animal appears to be having an unintended consequence. While panthers normally prey on white-tailed deer, feral hogs and other game, in 2004 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) began receiving reports of panthers preying on pets and small livestock, and in 2010, reports began to escalate for calves on cattle ranches as well.
Rural neighborhoods often sprawl out into natural areas where panthers, bears, bobcats, coyotes and other predators occur and create the opportunity for predators to prey upon unsecured pets and small livestock. In Southwest Florida, cattle ranches are typically spread over thousands of acres, with cows and calves dispersed on a range that includes excellent and essential panther habitat. For panther recovery to continue, it’s critical they remain welcome on these lands.
How We’re Helping
Applying what we’ve learned from our extensive experience with wildlife and ranchers in the western states, Defenders of Wildlife provides landowners with information on how to safely coexist with panthers. In rural neighborhoods, Defenders helps fund and provide trained recruits with the Panther Citizens Assistance Taskforce assist residents with building predator-resistant enclosures to protect small livestock and pets at night when panthers are prone to roam. In neighborhoods experiencing encounters with predators, including wild animals and free-ranging dogs, we organize door-to-door community outreach days to disseminate information about living responsibly with panthers and other wildlife. Defenders co-sponsors the annual Florida Panther Festival that raises awareness about Florida panther conservation challenges and ways to coexist on the landscape with this wide-ranging cat.
We also supported a University of Florida study on southwest Florida calf depredation, the goal of which was to determine the extent to which predators, in particular the Florida panther, are responsible for calf mortality on two ranches in panther territory. We purchased 15 motion-sensitive cameras for the project, which enabled the researchers to document the existence of Florida panthers, Florida black bears, and coyotes on the ranch while calves are present, and to deploy cameras when depredation is documented. The results of the study are being analyzed and will be used to help develop a conservation incentives program for landowners.
Defenders was appointed as the only conservation representative to the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team, along with USFWS, Florida Wildlife Commission, National Park Service and a private landowner. The team’s priorities include developing plans to help panthers expand their range north of the Caloosahatchee River, crafting plans for establishing viable populations outside of south Florida and working with private landowners on incentive programs for conserving and restoring panther habitat. Defenders served on the larger team that helped develop the Florida Panther Recovery Plan, and our appointment to the new team is recognition of our constructive contributions to advancing panther restoration.