Friday, December 29, 2006

Florida panther making East Naples his new home

By Jeremy Cox
Thursday, December 28, 2006

Bobcats. Gopher tortoises. Bald eagles. Deer. Wild hogs. Raccoons.

Brian Holley is fond of ticking off the medley of wildlife found in the woods around Naples Botanical Garden at the south end of Bayshore Drive.

His list just got longer.

Since late November, an orphaned male Florida panther has taken up residence in the yawning wilderness south of U.S. 41 East between Naples Bay and Collier Boulevard, state biologists say.

“In some ways, I’m kind of excited about it,” said Holley, the botanical garden’s executive director. “It’s nice to have nature that close to us.”

Such excursions into town are rare for the shy, elusive cats. But the behavior of FP147, as the panther is known, underscores the need to spare as much unpaved land as possible for the endangered cats, a federal biologist said.

“We aren’t going to stop development in town, and these panthers aren’t going to make it in town,” said Deborah Jansen of the National Park Service. “But it just points up the fact that a line needs to be drawn.”

Under pressure from developers and Collier County leaders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month redrew the line used to protect panthers from development.

The new boundaries, touted as a more accurate reflection of where the big cats live, shrank the species’ official territory by nearly 1 million acres across southern Florida. One of the most dramatic changes was in southwest Collier, where thousands of acres of East Naples - FP147’s new home - were removed.

An icon of Florida’s wild past, the charismatic Florida panther now lives on about 2.5 million acres of wilderness in Southwest Florida. Scientists estimate about 80-100 panthers exist.

FP147 was born in Big Cypress National Preserve in an area known as Raccoon Point, a few miles north of the preserve’s Oasis Visitor Center on U.S. 41 East.

Jansen and a team of panther trackers treed the then-11-month-old cat March 3 and placed a radio collar around his neck.

His mother died March 22 under mysterious circumstances, Jansen said. She had a large wound on her neck and lots of blood in her head, but it was unclear what had killed the cat.

FP147 was on his own too soon. Kittens typically don’t leave their mothers’ side until they are a year and a half old, experts say. Yet, he did what young males are supposed to do: He went looking for new territory.

During the summer and fall, the young panther scampered west to Southern Golden Gate Estates, west of State Road 29. Then, farther west to South Belle Meade. State biologists, who monitor radio-collared panther movements by air three times a week, then briefly lost track of him.

“We couldn’t find him at first during the flight, and at the end of the flight (we) did another sweep of the area and found him in Rookery Bay (National Estuarine Research Reserve),” Mark Lotz said.

Somehow, FP147 had found his way across U.S. 41 East and Collier Boulevard and was hanging around Shell Island Road, just north of Marco Island.

By last week, the cat had ventured to a wooded spot about a half-mile west of the southern terminus of Bayshore Drive, putting him within a few leaps of Naples Bay. Instead of getting wet, FP147 turned around and was found Wednesday a half-mile due south of Treviso Bay, a golf course and residential project under construction on U.S. 41 East.

Lotz doubts the panther will stay near the city for long. He will want to mate with a female panther at some point.

Not to mention that the wooded patch of East Naples is too small to support him; male panthers need up to 200 square miles of space.

Jansen worries the young panther will get hit by a car before he returns to the big woods of eastern Collier.

Nearby residents shouldn’t be “overly concerned” about their safety with a predator such as a panther in their midst, Lotz said.

Eagle Creek Country Club resident Michael Morrissey, for one, isn’t bothered. He doesn’t expect many critters to cross his path anytime soon.

“Not with a Super Wal-Mart going up across the street from us,” he said. _east_naples_his_new_home/?latest

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