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Center for Biological Diversity:
Florida panther

The Gainesville Sun, March 27, 2014

Jaclyn Lopez: Protecting Florida panthers
By Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity

The fatal injuries sustained by the Florida panther found in the Everglades recently suggest a sadly predictable death: The 4-year-old male was likely struck by a vehicle before crawling off into the underbrush to die. It marked Florida's seventh panther death in 2014, and came just two days after the state's official “Save the Florida Panther Day.”

It was a heartbreaking but fitting preamble to an unprecedented gathering of biologists, concerned citizens and wildlife officials last weekend at the University of Florida for the first-ever symposium on reintroducing the endangered big cats to North Florida.

The message from last weekend was clear: For the Florida panther to have a secure future, we must do a better job of protecting the existing population in South Florida and work toward creating additional population centers outside of South Florida.

First protected in 1967, the panther's successful recovery plans have identified the reintroduction of the cats as a critical component to building sustainable, genetically diverse populations.

But to date the panther has not been reintroduced anywhere, leaving the Florida panther's recovery to stagnate.

Currently limited to one critically important population of just 100 to 160 animals south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida panthers are under relentless pressure from ongoing development, expanded agriculture operations and ever-busier highways, pressures that led to the deaths of 20 panthers in 2013 alone.

On the morning of March 22 more than 30 symposium-goers took a field trip to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a potential panther reintroduction site that was patrolled by the big cats for thousands of years before they were pushed to the brink of extinction in the middle of the last century.

There's strong evidence that panthers can thrive in the refuge, which is linked to other suitable panther habitat, including Osceola National Forest and Pinhook Swamp.

In a 1993 pilot study, 19 western mountain lions were released into the Osceola/Okefenokee area and monitored for two years before being recaptured. During the study, more than half of the animals successfully established home ranges.

The study not only showed that the refuge is suitable panther habitat, but demonstrated how the big cats help restore and conserve fast-disappearing longleaf pine forests by preying on the deer and non-native feral hogs, that unchecked, can decimate saplings and seed cones.

Thanks to a 1936 declaration by President Franklin Roosevelt creating the 700-square-mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, much of the swamp has been allowed to heal after being scarred by centuries of logging. From the towering moss-draped canopies of cypress trees to the shallow, acidic waterways that give rise to carnivorous insect-eating pitcher plants, a journey into Okefenokee is like stepping back in time.

More than 250 species of birds and reptiles — including alligators, indigo snakes, wood storks and sandhill cranes — and more than 30 species of mammals — including black bears, deer and bobcats — now thrive in the refuge.

Yet despite the restorative effects of the refuge designation and management, a critical piece of the region's natural heritage has long been missing — the panther.

Allowing the panther to return to a habitat that has been transformed by human development will clearly come with its challenges. But the experts who make up the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team are working to develop detailed plans to accomplish those recovery goals.

It's time we do more than pay lip service to the big cat that 30 years ago was designated as the state animal. We must dedicate greater resources toward securing its future, and that includes restoring the panther to its ancestral hunting grounds in the Okefenokee.

As Georgia writer Janisse Ray observed in her book “Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land,” the challenge of saving the Florida panther is simply not something we can turn away from.

“To reintroduce the panther is to reintroduce a giant fear of the wild, and also a giant wonder,” she wrote. “It is not our duty to ask which is greater. To have the animal is always greater.”

Jaclyn Lopez is an attorney in the Florida office of the Center for Biological Diversity, where her work focuses on the protection and restoration of wild places, native ecosystems and imperiled species in the Southeast.


Copyright © 2014 Gainesville.com.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton