UPDATE! - Florida Wildlife Commission biologists have announced they have strong evidence that there is another female panther on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River! Trail cameras have picked up a large male panther engaged in what appears to be mating behavior with a female panther. FWC biologists are investigating other reports of possible female panthers north of the River as well, indicating that northward expansion may be proving to be a reality. Stay tuned for more news about Florida's pathfinding panthers!
For the first time since 1973, panther kittens have been confirmed on the north side of Florida's Caloosahatchee River. The river has been an obstacle toward northern expansion for breeding female panthers for some time.
Recent FWC Panther Team game camera images show the mom with several kittens moving along on the north side of the river, indicating that female panthers are moving northward naturally and breeding as well.
"This is good news for Florida panther conservation," said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director for the FWC's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. "Until now, we only had evidence of panthers breeding south of the Caloosahatchee. These pictures of a female with kittens indicate there are now panthers breeding north of the river."
Using trail cameras, biologists have monitored male panthers on various public and private lands north of the Caloosahatchee River for several years. In 2015, biologists collected a photo of what appeared to be a female panther in the FWC's Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County. They deployed additional cameras in the summer of 2016, and captured more images of what they believed to be a female panther.
"Early this year, the cameras captured images of a female that appeared to be nursing," said Darrell Land, FWC panther team leader. "For many years, the Caloosahatchee River has appeared to be a major obstacle to northward movement of female panthers. This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally."
Loss of habitat continues to be one of the biggest threats for Florida panthers so this evidence of northward expansion is especially good news for their recovery. Efforts to increase panther populations depend on understanding habitat and home range needs and preserving their travel corridors. That means thorough study of how they use their habitat and how much range each panther needs.
A 2005 habitat study for panther recovery failed to provide enough fruitful data to fully ascertain home range needs, but made clear the importance of understanding panther ecology to aid in recovery. Read the Mountain Lion Foundation story here.
"This is a major milestone on the road to recovery for the Florida panther," said FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski. "We are mindful and appreciative of all the many partners and cooperators who have supported panther conservation efforts over the years leading to meaningful moments like this."
Decisions about where to develop must be collaborative between state and federal agencies and private landowners in order to conserve the largest amount of high quality panther habitat possible. Read about a panther travel corridor in the path of development in the Mountain Lion Foundation's 2007 article here.
The FWC works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure panther conservation on both private and public lands. Staff also work to continue building support and cooperation among private landowners who maintain working landscapes and ranches that provide important habitat for panthers.
"This is good news for panther recovery, and the Service is committed to working with landowners to make panthers and private land ownership compatible," said Larry Williams, State Supervisor of Ecological Services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Mountain Lion Foundation has worked in Florida to help livestock owners create panther-proof pens that protect both livestock and the panthers. Currently we are working with Cougar Rewilding to help the Florida panther's recovery and northern expansion. We've long been awaiting this day and applaud the FWC Panther Team for their dedication and persistence in saving the Florida panther!
Check out a Mountain Lion Foundation podcast interview featuring Florida panther biologist Deborah Jansen.