Word earlier this month that the eastern cougar has been declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaves just one native panther species alive in the East -- the Florida panther that resides in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.
A question that arises in the wake of that announcement is whether the Florida panther, too, will fade into memory, or if additional landscapes can be found for the big cat to expand its currently tenuous population.
For the eastern cougar, development apparently overran the cat. And that apparently occurred a long, long time ago, as well. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists say there really haven't been documented sightings of the cats also known as Catamounts, Pumas, and Painters, as well as panthers, mountain lions, and cougars, in the wild since the 1930s.
“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” Martin Miller, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species, said in making the official extinction announcement. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”
There is, however, another big cat that very definitely is roaming at least a portion of the East.
“We do have what everybody agrees is still a population of breeding pumas in the East, which is the Florida panther," points out Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been striving to see that the Florida panther does not follow the eastern cougar into extinction.
There are an estimated 100-120 Florida panthers alive in the wild, living in Everglades and Big Cypress and surrounding lands in south Florida. Under the Fish and Wildlife Service's Florida Panther Recovery Plan, according to Mr. Robinson, three distinct populations of at least 240 individuals must be documented before the panther can lose its "endangered" tag.
There are, however, impediments to that goal, he noted last week during a phone conversation from his New Mexico office.
One is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has not designated critical habitat for the Florida panther. Such a designation might have blocked the National Park Service from threading the Addition lands tract of Big Cypress, an area known to be panther habitat, with a network of off-road vehicle routes possibly stretching for 130 miles. For if critical habitat for the panthers' survival had been designated, and had it included that area of Big Cypress, the Park Service would have had to prove that the ORV routes would not adversely impact the cats, said Mr. Robinson.
“We certainly think the ORV network they’re approving will imperil the panther even more," he added.
Other conservation groups share those concerns, and last week some filed a Notice of Intent to sue the Park Service over the Addition lands ORV plan if it's not altered.
The other major impediment to the survival of the Florida panther is that so far there's only that one population of panthers -- in southern Florida -- and it is being squeezed by development: panthers are being run over on highways and dying in territorial battles, which biologists refer to as "intraspecific aggression." According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at least three panthers were killed in territorial battles in Big Cypress last year, one of which occurred in the Addition lands section. (In the "good news" category, at least four kittens have been born in Big Cypress so far this year.)
While loss of habitat is behind some of the territorial battles at Big Cypress, Superintendent Pedro Ramos believes the 720,000-acre preserve simply has all the panthers it can reasonably handle given the preserve's management mandate, which is more "multi-use" than national parks.
"... every room is taken here at Big Cypress when it comes to panthers. We have a significant amount of panthers living at Big Cypress," he told the Traveler in January. "They have been living here despite the fact that there is hunting and there is ORV use and there is oil and gas activities taken place," he said.
In that same interview the superintendent pointed to the need to find habitat beyond the preserve and establish corridors that panthers can use to reach it.
To that point, the Center for Biological Diversity (along with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, the One More Generation organization, and The Florida Panther Society, Inc.) in February petitioned (see attachment) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to establish a second population of Florida panthers at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding lands in south Georgia and north Florida.
Now, exactly where Interior biologists would get the necessary recruits for such a population wasn't suggested by the Center in its petition, but the answer seems quite obvious to Mr. Robinson.
“They would have to come -- because it is a unique population in south Florida, it is the most closely related to the panthers that were several hundred miles to the north -- they would come from that population," he said Monday, though he wouldn't narrow it down to the Big Cypress panther population. "And increasingly that population is becoming hemmed in by growth and development.”
Working to establish an Okefenokee-based population could help offset genetic problems that have in the past plagued the southern Florida panthers, he noted in the petition to Secretary Salazar.
The sole extant breeding population of the Florida panther subsists on less than five percent of its original range, with just 100 to 120 animals surviving in South Florida – as a result of historic persecution coupled with loss of most of its habitat. Despite increasing numbers of Florida panthers in recent decades, that population is not yet viable and is increasingly limited by its own density within a shrinking island of habitat. As described in our petition submitted on September 17, 2009, designation of critical habitat is an urgent imperative. The population is also imperiled by loss of genetic diversity which can only be slowed through rapid growth in the number of surviving panthers – requiring in addition to habitat protection, the translocation of female panthers to areas of currently unoccupied habitat in south-central Florida.
According to the groups' petition, part of the 2008 Florida Panther Recovery Plan assessed where, habitat-wise, it might be best to locate two other populations. Topping the list of potential sites, the petition noted, is the Greater Okefenokee Ecosystem in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Furthering that recommendation was "an experimental 1993 release of 19 western mountain lions to this ecosystem, where they were monitored until recaptured in 1995 ... and documented that 15 of the animals established home ranges. This study found that panther reintroduction to the region is biologically feasible and suggested measures to increase the likelihood of success."
While Interior Department officials have not yet responded to the petition, Mr. Robinson believes moving to create a second population of Florida panthers is the obvious next step to take in working to ensure the cats don't simply fade away as did their eastern cougar relatives.
“By beginning a reintroduction program, some of those animals that otherwise would be lost (in territorial fights and from being run over) could perpetuate a new population or be the nucleus for a new population and perpetuate a new legacy,” he said.