The Plight of the Florida Panther — Opinion
By Kelly Dean
Like everything in life, success is actually a mix of success – and failure. What seems most important is perhaps the effort but ultimately it’s the outcome that matters. Sometimes tasks seem daunting and there appears to be no solution in sight. But somehow, little by little, well-conceived efforts work. Because anything less than a win seems useless. Such is the case with trying to save the Florida panther – so far.
The Florida panther
The Florida panther is a subspecies within the puma family, the same family as the mountain lion or cougar up north, extending out west and into South America. They are all much alike and only subtle differences make them a subspecies. The mountain lion has had resurgence and is currently considered an animal of “least concern” by conservationists. But they have lost much of their domain.
The Florida panther subspecies, however, is in greatest peril. It is the only large cat left in the eastern United States.
Human encroachment has been hard on the panther’s numbers. Current efforts to bring their numbers back have been successful, albeit slow. Most panthers reside in southern Florida — south of the Caloosahatchee River and down into the Everglades. They number about 150 at this point, give or take. In the 70s that number was closer to 20. They are currently listed as “critically endangered,” the opposite end of the threatened scale.
Conservationists have worked hard to increase the diversity of the gene pool and increase the cat’s DNA stability, but what seems to be working the best has three main focal points, and all rely on man’s vision.
Setting aside land
The panther needs a place to live in the fastest growing state in the country. This is a problem. Land development often nestles right up against the panther’s habitat and protected areas. Currently, the state has carved out a patchwork of managed areas for the panther, but they are somewhat disconnected. In order for the safe areas to have some impact, those living adjacent to the protected areas have to be willing to coexist with the panthers and allow a safe passage or corridor for the panther to expand its range north. This brings up the next point.
Living with the neighbors
Coexisting is a difficult problem. Homeowners and ranchers have to be willing to make some changes to “co-habitate” with panthers. They must take extra precautions with pets and livestock, or be willing to allow some loss. It would be hard to imagine people willing to give up their pets, so this requires a sort of diligence about how pets are kept and how they are monitored. Various conservation entities will help build structures for outdoor animals that largely seem to work, but pets must be let outside to “do their business” so they must be watched, especially in the evening.
Ranchers count on cows, goats, pigs and sheep offspring to feed themselves and make their mortgages. Losing one or two calves once in a while will cause considerable grief and some financial discomfort as well, but most accept it. Verifiable panther kills can be reimbursed by the state in an effort to make the loss more acceptable on a financial level, if not a human level. Farmers and ranchers have animals they keep as pets as well, so their loss is twofold, emotionally.
It is illegal to simply shoot a panther, as would have been the solution in the past. So farmers and ranchers who learn to get along with the panther deserve great respect for their restraint. Ranchers, along with conservationist have formed groups to promote this mindset. An outstanding Orion article explains their profound efforts well.
There is no record of a Florida panther attacking a human.
Creating safe passage
The biggest threat to the Florida panther is the automobile. This article in The Atlantic is a compelling read. In order to allow passage, corridors must be thought-out in advance before the roads are built. Ideally, they must be dry areas that allow passage underneath the thoroughfare in rural areas. If we have managed to figure out structural dilemmas and created bridge designs that allowing sailboat passage, it would seem we could create an underpass for these animals as well.
But water is indeed a barrier in the state of Florida and structures are expensive. Low areas flood easily in a tropical climate, especially in summer, and intercoastal waterways stretch across the state in many areas, hampering south to north migration, which is needed.
Saving safe passage for last, it would seem this is the most daunting task of all. Certainly, creating safe passage helps all earthbound animals move freely, but average drivers have to look out for the creatures in their periphery vision as well, often at 70 miles per hour on Interstate 75.
Recently developed technology used to avert automobile-pedestrian crashes certainly would also help here. If such motion sensing technology were applied to a wider angle, it would seem that it would also save the lives of impulsive children and distracted pedestrians, as well as domestic animals and wildlife.
One can attest to the visible sadness in the eyes of passersby when they come upon an accident resulting in the death of a panther. Those early to the collision have obvious distress on their faces when they see the dead animal at the side of the road. Honestly, it’s the same look when it’s a person.
Your author has seen both circumstances and it is indeed sad. There is no doubt people would be willing to make changes to accommodate these creatures. It simply has to be creative and methodical. They are worth it.