Laurie Macdonald introduces reporters to our nation’s most endangered big cat.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to New Orleans for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. I had been asked to give a talk on Florida panthers as part of a panel discussion about the world’s rare felines. The panel was moderated by Sharon Guynup, an accomplished journalist, producer and photographer, and champion of tiger conservation. My co-panelist was Judy Mills, who discussed the tragedy of tiger “farming” and use of tiger bone as part of an exclusive wine trade in Asia.

The topic posed a challenge: “Saving Endangered Species: If we can’t save the charismatic big cats, what can we save?” It struck me as discouraging and hopeful at the same time, because while the struggle to save any endangered species is difficult, there are signs of progress.

During my talk, I described the threats to Florida panthers, one of North America’s rarest big cats. Habitat loss and fragmentation, death due to collisions with vehicles and even fatal battles with each other for territory all threaten this cat’s survival. Conflicts with humans are still the biggest impediment to panther recovery and expansion back into the American southeast, where they historically ranged across eight states (including Louisiana!). Despite these threats, the panther has been making progress, thanks to the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act.
Florida panther, © Glen Stacell
Years ago, a too-small gene pool and debilitating inbreeding was taking its toll on the Florida panther, and without an infusion of new genes, the species was doomed. So, in 1995, eight Texas cougar females were released in south Florida and mated with the original population, bearing healthy offspring with no signs of genetic abnormalities. The new generation gave Florida panthers a future. This more vigorous population spurred growth, and the numbers moved from the dozen or so individuals of the 1970s toward the nearly 200 that some estimate exist today.

Getting more panthers on the ground was one piece of the puzzle – making room for them to live and spread has been an ongoing challenge. By installing wildlife crossings under dangerous road segments and protecting habitat on public and private lands, we’re all working to give panthers room to roam safely.

But the growing panther population, coupled with continuing growth of the human population, has led to conflicts that pose a profound threat to panther recovery. Wildlife agencies, conservation groups and Florida’s citizens need to work together to create practical ways for humans and panthers to coexist so that this animal is seen as a natural part of the wild and rural landscape. Our Defenders’ Panther Citizens Assistance Team (PCAT) is one of the great examples of this kind of program as we help to fund, and provide volunteers to build, predator resistant livestock enclosures for residents in southwest Florida. Defenders is striving for a future where panthers can return to their historic range, ranchers’ livestock and homeowners’ property and families are safe, and the cats are tolerated – hopefully even welcomed!

As desperate as the panther’s situation may seem at times, I can foresee a day when a female panther stalks a white tailed deer to feed her kittens in the wilder areas of north Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, all the way back to Arkansas…and not so very far from where we sat listening to stories of the world’s big cats there in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Laurie Macdonald is the Florida Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife