It’s been four decades since evidence of a female Florida panther was found north of the species’ known breeding range. What does the discovery mean?
In 2016, a record number of 34 Florida panthers were killed by vehicles, a big hit for a population of fewer than 200 adults. But the year also saw good news: For the first time since 1973, a female panther was documented north of the Caloosahatchee River, giving new hope for the recovery of her species.
Lucy, photographed by National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore as part of his Photo Ark project, lives in Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and has become an ambassador for the plight of her species—and for endangered wildlife worldwide. I’m happy to know that Lucy, and a few other zoo panthers, are no longer the only female panthers living north of the Caloosahatchee.
‘Something Special’ Caught on Camera
It was an hour after sunset on the first of November. Stars were starting to show in the moonless twilight as a female Florida panther followed a game trail through wiregrass and palmettos beneath an open canopy of pines. She didn’t notice the invisible infrared flash from a tree to her left as she continued down the trail past the tracks of deer, turkeys, raccoons, and hogs. Leaving her own tracks in the sand, she descended from the flatwoods toward an oak hammock studded with cabbage palms near a vast cypress swamp drying by the week but still wet from summer rains.
Two days later, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission returned to the site to check on their motion-sensing game cameras. They knew they had something special when the graceful feline took shape on their computer screen. Then they found her tracks nearby and made plaster casts to corroborate the first evidence of a female Florida panther found north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973.
For the past four decades, the Caloosahatchee has been the northern boundary to the known breeding range of the Florida panther—Florida’s state animal and the only puma species surviving east of the Mississippi. In that time, the panther population has rebounded from as few as 30 adults to nearly 200 today. But the requirements for the species to recover from its endangered status include establishing additional breeding populations of similar size in areas the panther formerly occupied north of the Caloosahatchee.
The first female panther documented there gives new hope to her species, and she couldn’t have picked a better place for her new home. Babcock Ranch is a 70,000-acre state preserve that protects a diversity of habitats and provides deep woods for cover and abundant game to eat. Babcock is also part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, 16 million acres of public and private lands that make up a statewide network of connected wildlife habitat stretching from the Everglades to Georgia and Alabama.
I helped start a campaign to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor in 2010 and have since trekked 2,000 miles as part of two National Geographic–funded expeditions. Our purpose was to raise visibility of the corridor and the importance of protecting it from further fragmentation.
A Crucial Corridor
For the past six months I’ve been based out of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples, managing a group of custom-made camera traps here and on nearby cattle ranches. My mission is to elevate the story of the Florida panther and inspire the habitat conservation needed to recover the species and protect the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. You can find out more—and learn how to help—on our Photo Ark page.
News of the female panther on the game camera at Babcock Ranch provided a great opportunity to go there with state biologists in December to deploy a camera of my own. The last time I had visited Babcock Ranch was 2012, during the first Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a hundred-day, thousand-mile trek tracing the best remaining connected habitat from Everglades National Park in South Florida to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. We had arrived at Babcock on day 25 of the expedition, after paddling up Telegraph Cypress Creek from the Caloosahatchee River. Two days before, we had started paddling east of La Belle at a known panther crossing—one of the last stretches containing undeveloped land on both sides of the river.
The fate of property south of the river was then unknown, but later that year the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, FWC, and other partners orchestrated a crucial deal that saved the land from foreclosure—and likely development—and sold it to a neighboring cattle rancher with the permanent protection of a conservation easement. There’s no way to know whether the female swam the river at that spot, but it’s encouraging to know she could have.
The part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor that overlaps the Greater Everglades (think Orlando south) consists primarily of public conservation lands and working cattle ranches, with groves and other forms of agriculture mixed in.
The path of our 2012 expedition approximates the path panthers will follow to expand into their historic territory. The path begins from South Florida public lands like Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, all at risk of being cut off from the rest of the state and needing lifelines north to the Caloosahatchee and beyond, where the fabric of the corridor consists largely of private ranches interspersed with state and federal preserves. The ranches interest me the most because their futures aren’t secure, yet without them the corridor wouldn’t exist. During the expedition, we hiked across or camped on nearly 30 ranches whose owners were interested in conservation easements as alternatives to development.
Find out why ranchers and panthers need each other in my next post: Together Panthers and Ranchers can Keep Florida Wild.
Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic explorer focused on the story of the Florida panther. He has trekked 2,000 miles through Florida’s wildest areas to raise visibility for the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. His photographs are available through CarltonWard.com and his gallery in Tampa. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard.