Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
The south Florida counties encompassing the panther's range are among the fastest growing in the nation. Human population growth and agricultural expansion erode panther habitat and reduce numbers. No security against extinction is provided by the single, small, wild population that appears to have stabilized at 30 to 50 adults. Inbreeding and mortality continue to diminish genetic variability and viability.
Studies conducted since 1981 have resulted in a draft Florida Panther Habitat Preservation Plan, which may result in significant section 10 activities (e.g., analysis for incidental takings) as public and private landowners realize their respective responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act. The draft habitat preservation plan was developed in response to a habitat preservation task identified in the recovery plan. The draft habitat preservation plan highlights population viability concerns for the Florida panther, addresses the importance of habitat in maintaining a panther population, and identifies occupied and potential panther habitat in south Florida, threats to habitat, and options for maintaining sufficient habitat for a self-sustaining population of panthers in south Florida. In 1991, a captive population was established for genetic management purposes and to provide animals for future release in the wild. Emphasis has also been placed on regulatory measures to reduce human disturbances and actions to improve management practices on public lands.
Significant pressures on existing habitat due to its conversion to citrus/sugarcane production and commercial development have required numerous informal section 7 consultations, as have the releases of environmental contaminants from stationary sources such as garbage incinerators. An informal consultation on the development of a garbage incinerator in Lee County resulted in significant reductions of environmental contaminants through the use of state-of-the-art technology and an aggressive source reduction program. Other achievements include development of 36 wildlife crossings as part of converting State Road 84 to I-75, to be completed in 1993. Expected to reduce panther mortality/injury, the completed crossings already show panther use. With acquisition approximately 83 percent complete, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is now staffed and operational. Active management, principally the use of controlled burns to improve conditions for panthers and prey resources, is under way.
Work continues toward the development of a captive panther population. Plans call for taking up to six kittens per year over the next 3 to 6 years from selected adults in the wild to achieve the desired genetic representation. Three kittens of each sex were brought into captivity in 1991. In 1992, two kittens of each sex were added. Actions to identify and evaluate potential reestablishment sites in Florida were initiated in 1987, and rangewide in 1991. Present plans include using western cougars (males will be neutered) as surrogates to test the suitability of higher ranked sites.
Habitat conservation, genetic preservation and management, and population expansion are primary needs. The draft habitat preservation plan must be completed and rapidly implemented. Establishing the captive population also needs to continue as planned. Identification, evaluation, and selection of reestablishment sites must be accelerated.
The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission was provided $231,300 in FY 1991 and $215,735 in FY 1992 to conduct a biomedics study, determine the response of the wild panther population to removal of kittens for a captive breeding program, determine prey characteristics, study panther distribution and habitat conservation, conduct captive breeding and reintroduction, and prepare a Florida panther technical bulletin.
National Park Service: Investigative studies undertaken by this Federal agency have provided valuable information for developing management strategies on its lands. An active partner on the Florida Panther Interagency Committee, the National Park Service has monitored the panther and its prey resources at the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, and made sure the species' needs were considered as habitat management and visitor-use decisions were made.
Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission: Another Florida Panther Interagency Committee partner, the Commission started its panther investigations in 1981. Most of its projects have been funded with section 6 grants. Commission initiatives have helped make possible the present understanding of the panther's status.
Florida Department of Natural Resources: The Department continues its role as an active member of the Interagency Committee.
Zoological Institutions (White Oak Plantation, Jacksonville Zoological Park, Lowry Park Zoo, and Miami Metrozoo): These organizations are providing facilities and resources to establish a captive Florida panther population. Panthers are being maintained at all institutions except the Miami Metrozoo.
Original plan approved 12/17/81; revised 6/22/87.