Monday, November 13, 2006

Existence of Florida panthers outside Lee and Collier Co.?

JERRY HILL
Bradenton Herald Outdoors Writer
Posted on Sun, Nov. 12, 2006

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release this week estimates there are somewhere between 80-100 panthers roaming in Southwest Florida. Since the release mentioned the big tawny felines reside in a half dozen or more areas in Collier and Lee counties, one would believe that number includes the cats, too.

I have no quarrel with that estimate, but am troubled with any conclusions that rule out the existence of panthers, cougars, mountain lions or whatever you want to label North America's native long-tailed feline, in other parts of the state.

In a lifetime of prowling this county's hinterlands, I've seen four panthers - one at night and the other three around mid-morning at fairly close range. One of those was many years ago at the back of an orange grove at a spot now within sight of Bethany Baptist Church. The second was at night and crossing the Upper Manatee River Road near the Camp Flying Eagle scouting enclave. The third was near Braden River Ranchettes before that area was developed.

The last one was crossing State Road 70 a few hundred yards west of the intersection of Verna-Bethany Road.

Those are mine, but there are literally dozens more sightings that have occurred over the last half century or so. Just before panthers were granted protection, a coon hunter supposedly shot and killed one near where Pirate City is now located. And about 40 years ago, the sports section of The Herald carried an account of a grown panther jumping over the fence of one of the softball fields located just west of 75th Street West. Supposedly, the big cat leaped the low fence, strolled across the outfield and exited the field via the other fence. The writer covering the event commented, "The outfield played in close the rest of the night."

For many years, an old hermit lived a mile or so west of the DeSoto Monument at the mouth of the Manatee River. He had a large mango grove and kept a passel of Airedales in his house. He told me on every 40th night his dogs would put up a ruckus, and the next morning he would invariably find big cat tracks in the grove.

About 35 years ago, I drove to Tampa each day to attend classes at the University of South Florida. For a number of days, I noticed what I took to be the carcass of a deer alongside the southbound lane of U.S. 41 a few hundred yards north of the countyline. Finally, one day, I pulled onto the shoulder for a quick perusal. The body was that of a mature panther.

Some years ago, a park ranger at Myakka River State Park reported seeing "a big long-tailed cat grab a small wild hog by the shoulders and jump into the roadside brush." One would guess the "long-tailed cat" had to be pretty big if it could take a small hog in its mouth.

In the past 25 years or so, a number of private citizens have called me to report panther sightings. Many of these were obviously mistaken. At least two involved panthers leaping over the head of humans in an attempt to get something they wanted to eat.

With one of these, a lady who lived in a trailer park claimed a big green-eyed, black cat (panthers are yellow and brown, not black, and the eyes tend to be gold and brown) had appeared in her driveway and jumped over her head to reach a poodle she had on a leash.

On the other hand, I have heard from enough reliable folk about panther sightings across the northern end of the county from Duette to Port Manatee to come to the conclusion a small population undoubtedly prowls there.

Some years ago, I was attending a conservation gathering when a gentleman, who was decidedly anti-hunting and showed overtones of being anti-human, declared panthers were only in the Everglades because the hunters drove them there.

The truth of this is panthers have always lived in the Big Cypress and on the higher islands of the Everglades.

I will acknowledge we have reduced the number of the native cats drastically in most parts of Florida, but we haven't driven them anywhere.

Some years ago, I questioned a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife expert as to why panthers are often seen in this end of the state but never reported in the Panhandle, where huge tracts of land are unpopulated.

He said much of that part of the state is operated for timber with 40-acre tracts surrounded by dirt roads.

Combine that with the fact all of that land is hunted by nimrods using big packs of running hounds, and chances are many years ago, the panther was eliminated because of being driven from cover and into waiting guns.

Over the years, I've strongly maintained panthers live and survive outside of the Everglades and the Big Cypress. A conservation commission official once came here to ask me to back off on that position.

I pointed out to him just a few months earlier a huge panther had been killed by a truck where Fisheating Creek flows under U.S. 27 near Palmdale, which is about 60 miles north of the Big Cyress. At that time, the commission was prosecuting two Seminoles for killing two panthers for ceremonial parts in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area northwest of West Palm Beach - again many miles from where they were supposed to exist.

I am convinced panthers still roam in peninsular Florida. Not in numbers in which we have to worry about our children, poodles or livestock, but just enough that they will survive.

And that is just fine by me. No wild creature in Florida is more secretive or beautiful.

Jerry Hill, outdoors writer, can be reached at 745-7013 or jhill@HeraldToday.com.

http://www.bradenton.com/mld/bradenton/sports/15992518.htm

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