Florida Panther

florida panther 1

The Florida panther is a thorn in the side of economic growth and a barrier to improving the lives of the people of Florida – discuss.

This large wild cat is simply the well known puma, cougar or mountain lion to quote three names or is it a subspecies?

There is uncertainty. The naming of this wild cat has been a bit sloppy and it can cause confusion. The quote of Theodore Roosevelt of 1901 is apt:

“No American beast has been the subject of so much loose writing or of such wild fables as the cougar. Even its name is unsettled…..”

This beast has also been persecuted.

Other names for this wild cat have been deer tiger and red tiger. The authors of the best known book on wild cats, Wild Cats of the World (Mel and Fiona Sunquist) call it the puma. Some people call it the eastern Mountain lion. To add perhaps more confusion the puma in Florida is sometimes referred to as the Florida cougar or Florida panther.

Video above: The author – traciaudubon (new window) – says this (I have provided a link to his YouTube channel in thanks):

“A rare daylight sighting of a Florida Panther was captured on video at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida as it took a morning stroll on the sanctuary boardwalk. Panthers, typically shy and nocturnal, are rarely seen and prefer to avoid people. The video was shot on the morning of May 12 at 8:15 a.m. as the panther walked from the pine flatwood across a prairie and into the cypress forest. Corkscrew volunteers Dick Brewer and Phil Nye saw the cat ahead of them on the boardwalk, and Brewer shot the video. The panther continued on the boardwalk for almost a half mile before finally jumping off and disappearing.”

Its habitat is in the eastern United States, specifically, southern Florida. It was thought to be a sub species of the puma and given the scientific name Puma concolor coryi but genetic research in 2000 suggests that this is not a subspecies (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ – Red List). It is not listed as one by the Red List but as a “subpopulation”. The Red List should be the most up to date source. However it is still regularly referred to as a subspecies by scientists and the matter of whether or not it is a subspecies remains unresolved, it would seem. I will refer to this wild cat as the Florida panther in this article, however.

Human activity and developments encroaching onto the puma habitat over the southern United States together with persecution by bounty hunters, sport hunters or farmers protecting livestock (but failing it seems to take proactive measures) resulted in 95% of the puma population being wiped out leaving just southern Florida. Habitat loss is the most important reason for the loss of this animal today (Liza Gross – PubMed Central). The Red List refers to Mel & Fiona Sunquist – 2002 – in saying that road kills are the main cause of death of the Florida panther. Roads are also a barrier to its natural movement over its range and to a home range. This cat is forced to live amongst people, which is not viable (
for the cat). It somewhat reflects the situation in Africa regarding the cheetah, which is forced to live on farmland (see cheetah habitat).

Habitat loss across the board is the major threat to the survival of the wild cats of the world. Humans are the planet’s top predator and their population is growing very quickly and in an unregulated manner with the attendant need for housing and economic growth that seems to be the only viable business model.

With new housing comes roads and roadkills threaten the survival of a cat with such a low and precarious population; 66 road kills since 1972 (up to 2005) – the video above highlights this real threat. The panther being forced to live in a range too small for it ends up fighting with other panthers over territory. For newly independent cats dispersal to find and settle in their own range is dangerous and with limited space even more so. Little firm data exists on the numbers killed at this time of their lives, however. As an example, in Florida two males who were dispersing were killed by a “resident” male (i.e. one who already held the territory).

Source for data below: Liza Gross – PubMed Central
Loss of forest in Florida 1935-1995 1.8 million acres
Expansion of roads in Florida 1991-2003 11,000 miles
Loss of green space in Florida 450 acres daily

Any unique characteristics of the Florida panther are due to inbreeding and “genetic drift” (PubMed Central) such as the crooked tail and heart defects. The Florida panther is inbred due to its small “island” habitat, which has resulted in genetic defects such as mentioned above and poor sperm quality (see another post on poor sperm quality of endangered wild cats). As at 2005 there were an estimated 80 panthers in Florida. There were 30-50 in 1995. Scientists become concerned for the survival of a population when it drops below 500. (src: PubMed Central)

When we talk about the Florida panther we are obliged to talk about the puma of north and south America set against the background of this animal’s story over the last 100 years, which is its struggle to cohabit with people due to our lack of will to make the relationship work.


In this article I focus on the threats to this cat, the most important topic by far, but there are a growing number of articles listed with links about the cat itself at the base of the page.

Update 24th Sept.2010: “Thanks for referring to my story on the Florida panther. I just wanted to provide the link to the story, which ran in PLoS Biology (link opens in a new window). Since the journal is open access, anyone can read it or reuse the images that ran in the story (as you’ve done here!).”

Many thanks,

Liza


puma range

florida panther range

The above is a thumbnail of a map of the range of the Florida panther as at 2000. (Illustration: Rusty Howson) from PubMed Central.

If you want to make the above map more accurate please go to the original Google My Map (prepared by me), zoom in, click edit and go. This link takes you to a page on the Puma cat range. And this link to the Google map (opens a new window).

As mentioned, pumas were extirpated (completely destroyed) from the eastern United States by the end of the 1890s some 110 years ago, with one exception a small “island” (effectively a habitat island) population in southern Florida. Although it is now accepted that the puma is no longer in existence east of Texas there have been some sightings, ostensibly, in eastern USA but it is said that these are released captive animals.

Florida-Cougar

See base of page for more credits etc. on the above photo. Photo by George Gentry (cropped).

I made a post about the Florida cougar (new window) based on a fresh scientific report of 2003 by a scientific review team who had a fresh look at all previous scientific data on this cat and its habitat requirements. Its findings were a little surprising. The research review came out of much argument and discovered that there were fundamental flaws in a large amount of scientific research. A major flaw was the conclusion that this cat had to live in a forest and “wouldn’t move across more than a 90-meter (about 300 feet) gap of non-forest..” This opened the door to development. {In an article of the Los Angeles Times referred to below, a significant percentage of scientists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) claimed to be pressured into modifying reports to favour business development.}

Accordingly, this flawed research formed the basis upon which decisions were made regarding US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) development permits. Since the date of the flawed paper (1995) there have been developments in an around the Florida panther habitat that arguably wouldn’t have happened but for the paper. The developments, of course, resulted in habitat being taken from the Florida panther, jeopardizing its existence. In other words “the best available science” got it fundamentally wrong and helped businesses. Does that smell fishy to you? The full review report can be seen here:

http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/pb1/vitae/Panther-SRT.pdf (opens in new window)

Not enough to this day is known about the Florida panther. However it is agreed that there has been inbreeding over a very considerable time due to the island habitat of this wild cat and there is continued commercial pressure on the habitat, which has, it could be argued, had an effect on the objectivity of scientific reporting about this animal and its habitat requirements. The trouble is that a wild animal that needs lots of space is in a very popular and valuable area for people. This is bound to create conflict between commerce on the one hand and environmentalists and conservationists on the other.

In addition to the above, the flawed earlier research indicated that the Florida panther was in robust health thus precluding the need to widen the gene pool and thereby improve survival. This also seems like subjective science. One problem was a blind faith in science (flawed or not) and little peer review. In short, the system was flawed as well as the science.

florida panther range building development

The above map shows Development Projects in Panther Habitat Since 2000. Author: (Illustration: Brad Nunley/National Wildlife Federation). Source: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov. A word about these developments. In 2005 panther habitat was (and I presume still is) shrinking at the rate of 1% per year, which translates to a 15% reduction over the forthcoming 25 years if it continues unabated. Biological opinions (the red areas on the map) are still being drafted. These are documents that state the assessments of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as to whether a Federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a threatened or endangered species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat (src: http://www.expertglossary.com). In other words consideration is being given to further development on Florida panther habitat leading to actual developments on occasions despite the known fragility of the panther population. Little change is expected to take place and why should it? As I mentioned business, population growth, economic growth and a lack of political will to save the panther can only lead to one conclusion.

In a worrying article by the Los Angeles Times of 2005, it was stated that over 200 FWS employees have said that they were directed (in effect forced I would allege) to alter their reports in favour of commercial development on the precious habitat. Of course the flawed research mentioned above did exactly that over a long period of time. There seems to be collusion between business and politics; an age old situation, which invariable hurts nature. The Bush administration was against wildlife it seems thereby undermining conservation efforts during his presidential term.

Very sadly, on the face of it things will not change under president Obama, which surprises me. Perhaps he was ill advised. The Environment News Service says (at June 23rd 2009) that President Obama has appointed a person with a very poor track record of enforcing the Endangered Species Act 1973 and a very good track record (from the viewpoint of business) of conducting consultations on development permits and granting them!

The person appointed, Sam Hamilton, is steeped in the ways of the FWS in eastern USA. His area of responsibility covers Florida. This seems to spell the end of the Florida panther. Comparing track records:

Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Region Number of Consultations Number of Objections
10 state South-eastern Region headed by Hamilton 5,974 1
Rocky Mountain Region 586 100

The above records simply back up what is inferred by Liza Gross that there is an underlying political position that favours business in Florida and that considers wildlife an obstacle to be overcome. I would argue that Hamilton is technically working within the Endangered Species Act but is not faithful to its purpose and objectives and I wonder whether a challenge could be mounted. In other words a judicial review of the decisions made as being ultra vires (“beyond the powers”) the act. Such a long history of decision making by Hamilton indicates it could be done.

The purpose of the Environmental Protection Act 1973 is “stated in section 2 of the act. It was designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” (src: Wikipedia®). Mr Hamilton’s decisions would seem on the face of it to support economic growth and be untempered by adequate concern for conservation.

Hamilton is quoted as saying, “”it is frustrating to see so much wildlife habitat in this country being converted to other uses at a pace unlike anything in our history.” (src: http://www.uslaw.com new window). I find that odd in the light of his track record of allowing it to happen.

Continued development seems to have encouraged human sprawl. There are many people including some politicians I am sure who want rid of the puma. It is simply an obstacle in the path of financial profit. And big business in league with politicians run everything. The Sumatran tiger is suffering an identical fate but rather then urban sprawl causing habitat loss it is the logging and paper business that destroys the forest: the same difference.

Further reading:

Sources:

Map of Puma range published under Wikimedia Commons license. Author: Zoologist.

Photo heading this page by danbodenstein (new window)

Photo of Eastern Mountain lion: Published under Wikimedia Commons which in turn used this photo as it is in the public domain because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. Original work: US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by George Gentry.


What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page…

I saw a Florida panther in Marion Oaks, Florida  starstarstarstarstar
I know this sound unreal but me and one other person about 15 years ago each spotted a “Florida panther” in Marion Oaks, Florida in the western side of …

Can Florida Panthers Be Saved from Extinction?  starstarstarstarstar
What are their chances of survival? Since my cougar lore is shaky, the best I can do is focus on topics seemingly unrelated to them. Yet these topics …

The Original Florida Panther Was Black  Not rated yet
I am a Florida native. My family goes back before Florida was a state.

I used to see the panther in Inverness (see map) when I was a child and they …



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Heads up! You are attempting to upload an invalid image. If saved, this image will not display with your comment.

To upload a photo (1) place the photo on the desktop of your computer (2) write your comment (3) click on the "browse" button below the comment area (4) select the photo (5) click on the "post comment" button (6) wait and it will appear if you are a regular. It failed? Please click this. Thanks.