by Allison Vincent
Staged and ready after months of planning stands a congregated group of biologists waiting for a call. They shiver outside the CREW office field station, enjoying the unusually cool temperatures and wide open view from the pole-barn near a utilitarian series of land management buildings used to manage the CREW lands. They’re waiting for word from the houndsman, still out searching for signs of Florida’s big cat, the Florida panther, and our smaller wild felid, the bobcat.
When the call comes in that a bobcat has been tracked and treed, they load up the warmed-up swamp buggies and rendezvous with the houndsman in a remote area of the CREW lands. This time, they’ve tracked another male bobcat, not a target for collaring this season, given the biologists’ interest in females who might produce a litter of kittens that could provide developmental information about the feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) affliction. If they track a panther, they plan to collar it regardless of the sex.
The dogs respond to the houndsman’s signal and regroup, alert for the next search. The houndsman Cougar McBride, contracted by the FWC, is a second generation tracker and has worked throughout the Americas as far south as Paraguay, South America capturing jaguars. Here in Florida, the aptly named houndsman works collaboratively with biologists to safely track our endangered Florida subspecies of Puma concolor to supplement biological research and improve the chances of restoring the historic population of this important endangered species.
A major component of the panther program is radio collar data which tracks the range of these native predators. Using game cameras as a preliminary step, the panther team has a general idea of capture zones. This season they chose the CREW lands because of frequent game camera footage of panthers, including one that happens to have no ears – an indication of his age and survival skills. Capture zones where panther kittens were observed on the game cameras were avoided to prevent any conflict between the hounds and kittens. Safety of these wild felids is of the utmost importance and biologists will often walk away from a capture if the conditions are not right.
It’s still early in this year’s capture season and it’s an ongoing saga that we’ll report back on in future blogs. The research and understanding these seasons bring to our collective understanding of this elusive animal cannot be overstated. Their status as an endangered species serves as an umbrella to protect other wildlife and wildlife corridors throughout their range. In the years to come, the story that emerges from our understanding of their expanding range and recovering numbers will affect all Floridians.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Panther: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/florida_panther/wah/panther.html