The Cats Came Back By Kim Tingley In NRDC OnEarth Magazine

You should know this.
Thirty years ago, survival seemed unlikely for the endangered Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi. Researchers estimated that as few as 20 or 30 of the tawny cats remained, and they faced grim threats: rampant development was shrinking their South Florida habitat; constant inbreeding had introduced a congenital heart defect into the population; and the highways that crisscrossed the wilderness where they hunted at night put them at constant risk of being struck by cars.

But in 1981, state wildlife officials developed their first-ever panther recovery plan and began putting it into action. They set aside tens of thousands of acres, including 26,400 for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and they built dozens of highway underpasses so the cats could cross safely between territories. They also released eight Texas cougars into the panthers’ range to literally inject new blood — through crossbreeding — into the population. Now, Mark Lotz, a panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), says the panthers are “holding their own.” For the past five or six years, he says, their numbers have “plateaued somewhere around 100” — a major improvement.

Ongoing Series: Species Watch
But not everyone is so thrilled with the cats’ success. The panthers’ growing numbers have led to more conflicts with the humans who share their habitat, to deadly effect. Cattle ranchers have begun to complain that panthers are preying on their calves, at a loss of about $800 per head. A joint federal and state report confirmed that between July 2009 and June 2010, Floridians had five up-close encounters with the normally elusive felines. That year, the predators attacked house cats and livestock such as goats at least 12 times; so far, in the year since, they’ve been implicated in 27 attacks, each of which can include multiple animal victims. Last weekend, a Naples livestock owner reported losing eight goats and a potbellied pig to panthers.

On Tuesday, in an attempt to keep the peace, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida launched a yearlong pilot program that will pay small-farm owners $500 for every cow that panthers kill and award residents who lose pets and livestock $250 toward building a protective fence.

But the money is not available to large ranches, and before other residents can receive it, the FWC must confirm that panthers killed the missing pets and livestock — an often difficult task. As wildlife officials continue to look at the issue of panther-human conflict in search of solutions, it seems that some humans may already be taking matters into their hands: The FWC is offering a $5,000 reward for any information about the party responsible for poaching a panther in February, the third such incident in the last two years.

While biologists estimate that Florida may have housed more than 1,300 panthers before Europeans arrived, some 500 years later, says Lotz, it’s possible the southern part of the state has reached its panther limit. Though their territories overlap, male panthers need 200 square miles to live, and females, 80. Few locations outside of South Florida — home to the Everglades and numerous wetland preserves — have swaths of land large enough to accommodate more than a handful of the powerful cats. Lotz calls the lack of habitat “the number one issue,” explaining that in South Florida, “it seems like panthers are occupying just about every piece of available habitat there is.”

Now the question is whether humans can learn to live with the few that remain


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