The Panther Capture Season at CREW Continues

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust Volunteer

FWC is learning more about Florida panthers through their FLM focused research

As we explained in our latest blog post, a primary objective of capturing and radio collaring Florida panthers and bobcats is to identify a mysterious disease affecting our felids, feline leukomyelopathy disorder (FLM). 

When a cat is captured, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists look to obtain tissue samples to study in an effort to advance our knowledge of FLM. Combined with trail cameras illuminating documentation on panthers and bobcats, tissue samples may help to unlock the key to this devastating disease.

The most notable symptom of FLM is rear leg weakness or even paralysis. Trail cameras have captured some heartbreaking examples of cats and kittens showing difficulty walking. Severe cases of FLM can result in death. Check out the FWC website (myfwc.com) to see videos of a panther and a bobcat demonstrating that rear-leg weakness. 

In Collier County, FLM was first discovered around the National Audubon lands known as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in 2018. Since then, cases of FLM have been documented in several south Florida counties. Testing has focused on toxins such as rodenticide, infectious disease and nutritional deficiencies but the mystery hasn’t yet been solved.

Why is this investigation of the causes of FLM urgent? The Florida panther underwent a severe decline in population during the 20th century. No reliable numbers exist but it is believed that the panther population was fairly robust at the end of the 19th century, yet by the 1970s the population had almost disappeared, mainly through hunting. In 1973 the Florida panther was declared an endangered species and since then the numbers have grown slowly, reaching the current estimate of approximately 120 to 230.   

FLM is only one of the contemporary threats to the panther population. Since most of the remaining panthers live south of the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a distinct geographic limit to the gene pool. With about 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, construction is destroying the panther’s essential warm climate habitats – wetlands, swamps, upland forest, and stands of saw palmetto. In addition, A male panther needs about 200 square miles to establish his own territory. The end result for panthers is increased car fatalities and intraspecies aggression due to a lack of territory. Without wildlife corridors like the CREW lands to connect large swaths of habitat, the panther is finding it more challenging to mate and breed.    

Bobcats, too, are susceptible to FLM and can provide valuable data to aid both species, but their population numbers are not as dire as those of the panther for several reasons. For one thing, bobcats are not as fussy about habitat – they can adjust to an urban or suburban environment. In a wild habitat, a bobcat needs a range of five to six miles, but in an urban setting they can be satisfied with only one or two miles. Bobcats are opportunistic carnivores and survive on a wider variety of prey than the panther. They prefer rabbits and rodents but they will also eat small reptiles, birds, feral cats, carrion and eggs. While the Florida panther lives only in the southwest corner of Florida, the bobcat is present in most of the U.S. and in Florida it’s found in all counties except in the Keys.   

When we protect our native Florida felids like the panther we in turn preserve their habitat, which benefits many other species – including our own – under the umbrella of their reach. Additionally, the research that the FWC panther team performs paints a broader picture of the Florida panther’s future, closely intertwined in the preservation of our limited natural resources. Panthers require our protection, so that future generations may enjoy the same diverse ecosystems, watersheds, and native environment that has attracted generations of Floridians to live and grow alongside these wild felids. FWC research is key to the survival of Florida’s state animal, the endangered Florida panther, but always remember that your input is incredibly valuable too! Please report panther sightings (and bobcats with FLM symptoms) with a video if you have the where-with-all to do so! 

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Panther Capture Season at CREW

by Allison Vincent

photo by Thomas Reinert of FWC

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. 

Bobcat (left) and Florida panther (right)

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.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have collected varied tissue samples from all FLM positive animals to analyze with a wide array of tests in order to attempt to decipher the root cause of the disorder. 

https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/panther/

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

2021 Year in Review at CREW

River otter at CREW Flint Pen Strand

The CREW trails saw 51,664 people in 2021

Once in a lifetime panther pictures taken by guests at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp

Welcomed back third-graders, for the first time since 2019!

Florida Gulf Coast University students volunteered 2,012 hours

CREW Trust volunteers gave 4,425 hours in service

The NEW Purple Trail opened at CREW Flint Pen Strand

CREW Trust fundraiser began, Annual Trail Sponsors – look for signs at all trailheads

Why don’t we see panthers when we’re hiking the CREW trails?

By Allison Vincent

Florida Panther with kittens. photo taken on game camera within the CREW project

Puma concolor coryi evokes in the minds of most Floridians a mysterious big cat that charms us, even if we’ve never seen this charismatic megafauna in person. Their familiar shape, profile and significance can easily be brought to the forefront of our minds and yet there’s little need to be frightened of meeting a panther face to face on the CREW trails.

Try as you might – hit the CREW trails every day of the week and you’re still not guaranteed a panther sighting. That’s because this federally endangered species makes it a habit to avoid us. No offense, but they (like bears) can smell you a mile away and will take the path of least resistance away from you.

If you’re like many Floridians (new or native) and spend the majority of your time on the coasts or in urban centers, your chances of bumping into Florida’s state animal is on par with winning the jackpot. There are ways to increase your odds, but you’re going to have to invest. That’s because these big cats are not synanthropes, another ten-dollar word defined as animals that benefit from an association with humans and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around them. 

Why you probably won’t see a panther in the wild

Florida panthers avoid human interaction, unlike coyotes and racoons that fit the definition of synanthrope to a T. You’re more likely to see a bobcat, with their short tails and spotted adult coat of fur, or a roaming Florida black bear than ever to see the elusive “Coo-wah-chobee” – the Seminole word for “Big Cat” – the Florida panther. 

Panthers in general live a secretive life, far from anthropocentric (human-centered) urban settings – they prefer their wide-ranging “pumacentric” world of dense understory vegetation in hardwood hammocks and pinelands and prairie grasslands where they can stalk and ambush prey, like white-tailed deer and wild boar.

That’s why the majority of panther sightings are made by cattle ranchers and farmers and why they must take additional precautions to prevent a panther’s prey instinct from negatively affecting their livestock. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) outlines many best practices that can be initiated to prevent unwanted interaction between wildlife and livestock. Other organizations like the Path of the Panther work directly with cattle ranchers, private landowners and government agencies to incentivize wildlife corridors. 

Protecting what we can’t see

Many other species besides panthers benefit from preserving connected lands and utilize them to thrive. For instance, the Florida black bear, an omnivore that semi-hibernates, must forage over large forested areas to increase his or her bulk during the months leading up to our Florida winter, or dry season. Without these corridors allowing for their natural range of behavior, populations would suffer even greater losses.

Not to mention, Florida panthers are still rebounding under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. They were heavily hunted after 1832 when a bounty on panthers was created and the species was nearly extinct by the mid-1950s. 

The current panther recovery plan works toward the goal of establishing 3 viable populations, maintained for a minimum of 12-years (2 panther generations), of at least 240 individuals each (excluding dependent-aged kittens). Many partnering agencies are working to ensure sufficient habitat to support these populations. For purposes of the Florida panther recovery plan, a viable population has been defined as one in which there is a 95% probability of persistence for 100 years.

This is where we come back to the beginning of the story. The survival of the Florida panther depends on the protection of a network of statewide public and private lands, like those at CREW. Partnerships with sportsmen/women, private landowners, wildlife biologists, land managers and you all play an important role in protecting land with future wildlife conservation in mind. Every effort to preserve land and water is one step closer to achieving a sustainable future for our beloved species. 

Motion sensor photo taken on game camera within the CREW project

How you can help

Drive slowly in panther country

Panther activity is greatest between dusk and dawn, so when driving in panther country, be mindful and alert. Slow down and increase your distance between other cars. This allows you time to react.

Report panther sightings and interactions

If you see a Florida panther and can collect evidence such as pictures of the animal or its tracks, please share the information with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Reporting your observations can help biologists address panther conservation needs by identifying the areas used by these large cats.

To report wildlife/human interaction contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) wildlife hotline: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

Aid injured and orphaned panthers

The Florida Panther Fund was established by The Wildlife Foundation of Florida to aid in the recovery of injured or orphaned Florida panthers, as well as to meet other panther conservation needs. The fund is an important resource that gives the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission flexibility to deal with rare, unplanned, and non-budgeted events. Visit the Help Injured Panthers Return to the Wild website.

Support panther research

Florida panther research and management by FWC is funded almost entirely through the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund. This fund receives its monies from the purchase and annual renewal of the Protect the Panther specialty license plate in Florida. Tag holders give an annual $25.00 donation to the fund when they renew their registration. Visit the Protect the Panther license plate website to learn more.

Motion sensor photo taken on game camera within the CREW project

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973

CREW Education Series

by Jayne Johnston, Education Coordinator

photo by Carlton Ward

In this series, I will cover a variety of topics related to the wildlife of the CREW Project. While the main focus and priority is always water for people, it is also a special place where our wildlife benefit from the water and space provided, too. Second in this series – the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA).

The ESA was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972. This link is just under 9 minutes created by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to explain the basics of the ESA and how it works to keep wildlife – both terrestrial and aquatic – from going extinct. Video link: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/

Wildlife is protected because each animal is a key ingredient in the ecosystem where it lives. Functioning ecosystems are kept in check by negative feedback – there are checks and balances that keep all its components at optimal function. Losing a species may create a negative effect that ripples through an ecosystem permanently altering all other wildlife, plants, and even water – how it moves and its quality and quantity. Check out some success stories here: https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/big-features/survival-stories-animals-back-brink-will-county

This is why it is important to have the state wildlife agency, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as a partner of CREW implementing federal and state regulations (and protection once wildlife is no longer federally listed like the American alligator) through biological work and law enforcement provided by the FWC. A few of the federally listed species within the CREW Project are: Florida Panther, Eastern Indigo Snake and the Florida Bonneted Bat. In addition to federally listed species, each state lists their own protected species. State of Florida listed species found at CREW include: Big Cypress Fox Squirrel, Everglades Mink, Florida Pine Snake and Gopher Tortoise. There is wildlife that gets more attention than others so you may not have heard about some of these protected species. 

We call the attention getters “charismatic megafauna”. One of the CREW Project’s charismatic megafauna is the Florida Panther. Although the Florida panther gets a lot of attention, protecting land serves not only them, but all the animals using the same habitat. While the CREW Project’s primary goal is water for people, wildlife benefits from the water resources and the 60,000 acres of protected land. You can support our partner’s work through purchase of speciality license plates, hunting and fishing license purchases, and donations to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida that provides grants for FWC biologists. You can support the CREW Trust with memberships and donations.

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