Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tracking the plight of the Florida panther

By Kevin Lollar
klollar@news-press.com
Originally posted on July 22, 2007

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PANTHER FACTS
* Scientific name: Puma concolor coryi
* Status: Endangered
* Population in the wild: 80 to 100
* Size: Adult males weigh 130 to 160 pounds with an average length of 6 to 8 feet. Adult females weigh 70 to 100 pounds with an average length of 5 to 7 feet.
* Historic distribution: Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
* Present distribution: The breeding population is in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Dade and Monroe counties. A few males have ventured into Central Florida, but no females are known to have crossed the Caloosahatchee River.
* Home territory: Male panthers have territories that cover 150 to 200 square miles; female territories are about 80 square miles.
* Habitat: Hardwood hammocks, low pinelands, and palm forests, mixed swamp and cypress swamp.
* Diet: White-tailed deer, wild hog, raccoon, armadillo.
* Causes of death: The most common documented cause of death is roadkill. Since 1972, more than 100 panthers have been killed by traffic. The second leading cause of death intraspecific aggression (when one panther kills another). Since 1972, there have been 43 documented cases of intraspecific aggression.

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Without the backstory, they're just a couple of really nice wildlife photographs.

One, taken July 26, 2003, shows a female Florida panther — impassive and graceful — striding through Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest in Hendry County, while her two 2-month-old kittens bounce along through the grass.

The other, taken May 11, 2004, shows a very cute 2-week-old Florida panther kitten, spots on its head, tongue sticking out, in Big Cypress National Preserve.

But with a little digging through maps of 148 panthers' movements and information about their births, lives and deaths, the photos tell a story that can give insight to the plight of the most endangered mammal in North America.

Panther history

For any of this to make sense, though, a little panther history is necessary.

Florida panthers, a subspecies of the mountain lion, also known as cougar and puma, once ranged through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina and interbred with the Texas cougar and a now-extinct Northeastern subspecies.

In the 16th century, more than 1,000 panthers are estimated to have lived in what is now Florida; like many large predators, panthers were considered pests and routinely shot until the late 1950s, when it was listed as endangered under Florida law.

As the state's human population grew, urban and agricultural development cut the animal off from other states, and the population was confined to South Florida, less than 5 percent of its historic range.

The cat's low numbers and isolation led to inbreeding and genetic abnormalities, some of which are harmless (a kink in the tail and cowlick on the back), while others are harmful (heart defects and deformed sperm).

By the 1980s, the panther population had dropped to between 20 and 30.

In 1995, state and federal wildlife officials released eight female Texas cougars to breed with Florida panthers and improve the gene pool.

The Texas cats produced 20 offspring, 10 of which were fitted with radio collars — researchers track panthers by radio signals from the collars. Eight of the collared offspring are still alive.

Today's panther population is 80 to 100; about 40 live panthers are wearing collars.

Panther researchers say the genetic restoration project was a success.

"We've seen the kinked tail go away, and heart defects seem to be going away," said Layne Hamilton, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. "The problems with male reproduction have gone away, and kitten production has increased.

"That's what the population needed, the reintroduction of genetic material lost because of isolation."

Five Texas cougars died in the wild; the other three were removed in 2002 and 2003 and placed in permanent captivity.

"We're seeing positive results, but it's not a one-time, forever fix," said Darrell Land, leader of the state's Florida Panther Recovery Project. "Introductions of Texas cats need to be periodically repeated.

"We need to predict when we're seeing genetic issues so we'll know when to bring in new material, maybe once every 15 to 20 years or once every five to 10 years."

Which brings us back to the photographs.

One of the kittens with the adult female — officially known as FP110, the FP standing for Florida Panther — was captured and collared March 4, 2004, becoming FP130.

Male panthers move around more than females, occupying an average home territory of 200 square miles (nearly twice the size of Cape Coral), compared to a female's 75 square miles, and in August 2004, the male FP130 crossed the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle.

Most panthers live south of Immokalee, and only three collared panthers had crossed the river before FP130. Five collared panthers have been documented north of the Caloosahatchee, but certainly uncollared panthers live north of the river, as evidenced by the fact that vehicles have killed five uncollared panthers north of the river, the earliest in 1983.

"Those cats crossing the Caloosahatchee are just dispersing males, looking for greener pastures," Land said. "It's tough on males down here. There's a lot of competition, and once in a while, one shoots across the river.

"Now there's a steady presence of males north of the river. The real challenge is how accepting people are going to be if females go up there and start making babies."

FP130 kept moving, traveling through Charlotte, Glades, Highlands, Desoto, Hardee and Polk counties before being killed March 21 by a vehicle on Interstate 4 near Kissimmee.

As South Florida continues to develop, traffic continues to be an issue for panther researchers: Almost half of all recorded panther deaths have been the result of vehicle collisions.

So far this year, vehicles have killed a record 14 panthers. The previous roadkill record was 11, set last year.

"Since the mid-'90s, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of panthers, and we've seen an increase in traffic," said Paul Souza, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida office. "More cats and more traffic results in more collisions."

More development also means less panther habitat.

But what seems a disastrous development for panthers might not be.

Seven panthers related to FP130 in one way or another have used land on or bordering the 5,000-acre Ave Maria University and town that is opening this summer. In return for permits, developer Barron Collier Co. agreed to set aside 17,000 acres of the company's undeveloped land.

"There are good and bad things with Ave Maria," Land said. "The placement of the university and town was in low-quality panther habitat, agricultural fields. The company set aside high-quality habitat forever. The mitigation is a bright spot, but, yeah, each new acre bulldozed is an acre less for panthers."

Even with South Florida's unrelenting development, Land said, the panther will maintain its population.

"The question is how much land is enough," he said. "We drew a range of the Florida panther south of the river, and it's 2.2 million acres. Of those, 70 percent are in public hands.

"When you start throwing in conservation easements, we may be closing in on 80 percent in some sort of protection. The remaining 20 percent is the challenge."

The FP11 and FP12 dynasty

Incest, panthers killing panthers, including relatives and pregnant females, panthers being crowded out of their territory and moving north, panthers breeding with Texas cougars, roadkill panthers — the backstory of these two photographs creates a kind of wildlife soap opera that defines the Florida panther experience.

And it all goes back to female FP11 and male FP12, the great-great grandparents of FP110, which had four kittens in March, and great-great-great grandparents of FP130.

In 1987, FP11 and FP12 produced FP19, which, two years later, mated with her father, FP12.

From that incestuous union came a family tree that includes dozens of panthers that we know about and, no doubt, dozens more we don't.

"If the human population was reduced to 100, we'd quickly be marrying our cousins," Land said. "I can count 100 in my extended family, and if that's our little world, well, guess what."

FP19 and her father FP12 produced male FP45, and here's where things get a little complicated.

FP45 mated with one of the Texas cougars to produce FP65, a wide-ranging male that has popped up on I-75 in western Broward County, LaBelle, Alva and I-75 in Lee County between Luckett Road and State Road 82, which mated with FP82 to produce FP110, mother of FP130.

But we're not done with FP65.

While passing through Gum Slough in Hendry County on Jan. 15, 2003, FP65 killed female FP67, which was his stepsister (both were sired by FP45 but by different females).

Researchers call it "intraspecific aggression," but all it comes down to is one panther killing another.

Dating back to 1972, researchers have recorded 43 instances of panthers killing each other, 41 of those involving collared panthers, so, certainly, many uncollared panthers have been killed by other panthers and never found.

"When you have a high density of panthers, you expect that's going to happen," Hamilton said. "Males don't tolerate other males. You have females pop out kittens, the males try to disperse, but a lot of them stick around and kill their fathers or kill their mothers."

FP67's death left a 7-month-old orphan kitten, which panther researchers captured Jan. 15, 2003. The cat was collared and released as FP116 Aug. 20, 2003.

In late April 2004, FP116 gave birth to three kittens, one of which is the very cute, spot-headed two-week-old in the May 4, 2004, photograph.

The kitten's father?

FP65, her great-stepuncle, the same cat that killed her mother's mother.

FP116's story ended Jan. 10, when she was killed by another panther — she was pregnant.

The abstract cat

For the huge majority of Florida residents and visitors, the Florida panther is an abstraction, an animal that exists only in photographs and the words of the few who have seen them.

Although most people will never see a Florida panther, and although the Florida panther is a subspecies of an animal that's plentiful — and shot as vermin or game — elsewhere, they should be protected, Land said.

"The Endangered Species Act allows us to protect distinct population segments, including subspecies, so we're on solid ground legally," he said. "Besides, we know for a fact that this population is the last remnant of the mountain lions that used to be east of the Mississippi.

"They got hunted and killed all the way down, except for in the swamps of South Florida. I think it's pretty cool to know that we've got the largest predator east of the Mississippi, in the same place they've been since even before Columbus got here."

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