#MapMonday: Florida Panthers

In this episode of #MapMonday Mae speaks with Elizabeth, our Senior Florida Representative, about the highly endangered Florida panther and our efforts to help protect it. You can check out our Florida panther story map here.

Click to view video transcript

Welcome back for another Map Monday! Being from the east coast, I’ve always felt that this week’s species is pretty special.

It is the only puma found east of the Mississippi River. Have any idea what it could be? If you guessed the Florida panther, you are spot on.

Did you know that these cool cats actually have more in common with your pet cat than with lions or tigers? Besides enjoying a good nap in the warm sun, the panther also lacks the muscles to roar.

Needing to eat about 40 to 50 deer-sized animals each year, the panther is at the top of the food chain. But more importantly, they are an umbrella species.

That means that protecting Florida panther and the wild territory that they need also brings protections that many other species rely on.

Defenders of Wildlife has played an integral role in securing protections for the Florida panther for over 4 decades now since we first lobbied for it to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

We have been fighting for the panther ever since.

The Florida panther once ranged through the Southeastern United States, but today it can only be found in Southern Florida. That’s less than 5% of its original range.

Populations began to decline with European colonization as they were seen as a threat to humans and livestock so they were heavily hunted.

By the mid-1950s, there were so few panthers left, that they were nearly extinct.

The population has since rebounded to an estimated 120-230 adults. However, this cat is not out of the swamp just yet as current threats to the panther persist.

Panthers will need to expand their range northward to continue on a path to recovery. And evidence of such attempts exists: in 2017, panther kittens were found north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time since 1973.

This means that a female crossed the river to mate, something that scientists have been hoping to see for more than two decades!

The greatest threat to Florida panther is the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. This problem is exacerbated by the growing human population in the region.

Florida recently surpassed New York as the third most populous state in the nation with more than 21 million people and growing by 1,000 people per day.

More roads and housing developments mean less intact habitat for the panther who need 200 square miles each: that’s almost the size of Chicago!

Additionally, roads lead to the largest human-cause of panther mortality: vehicle collisions. In 2019, 24 panthers were killed by crossing the road. Of the 10 panthers that have died so far in 2020, 9 were killed by collisions with vehicles.

Defenders is part of a collaborative effort to help refine maps of panther hotspots to guide decisions for locating wildlife crossings. In addition to ensuring safe passage for panthers, Defenders’ Panther Recovery Program works to preserve and expand habitat and build social acceptance of panthers in local communities.

Let’s chat with Elizabeth Fleming, our Senior Florida Representative, to learn more.

(Elizabeth) Thanks, Mae!

The Florida panther has increased in population over the last few decades and while this is very good news, it still remains critically endangered and faces a number of threats.

Our work to recover the panther has never been more important. In order to remain on a path to recovery, the panther needs to expand its range northward.

We need to help the animal get across busy highways and we need to help people coexist with panthers and we need to conserve additional habitat.

While all of this is ongoing, just last year, our governor approved a new project that could result in more than 300 miles of additional highways, extending the length of the state of Florida from where the panthers occur in Southwest Florida to where panthers need to expand into North Florida.

So while we continue to try and recover the panther and reduce the threats, we’d like you to be able to join us and you can learn about more of our work on our Florida panther story map and on our website as well as our Facebook page! Thank you!

(Mae) Thanks, Elizabeth! So if you want to read more about the Florida panther or support some of the incredible work Defenders is doing to restore and connect their wild habitats, check out our story map on coexisting with Florida panthers.

You can also check out Defenders webpage for all updates to Florida panther efforts. And if you happen to live in southern Florida make sure to drive slow in panther country and report any sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission!

Thanks for watching and we hope you’re all staying safe and healthy!

Mae Lacey
Previous Conservation GIS Analyst

As the previous Conservation GIS Analyst in the Center for Conservation Innovation, Mae provided support and leadership for geospatial product development across Defenders.