[Editor's note: the following post was written by Jill Austin, associate director of marketing for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.]
One sign drawing interest at the Red Sox spring training facility on the outskirts of Ft. Myers has nothing to do with baseball. It’s a yellow warning sign on the roadway out front with the black silhouette of a Florida panther over the words “Panther Xing.” Reactions from curious fans range from “Really?” to the excited “Will we see a panther?” to “Can a sign help?”
- Yes, this is really a panther crossing area.
- No, you are unlikely to see one since they mostly travel unseen at night.
- And yes, the sign is needed since the federally endangered Florida panther is frequently killed by cars.
Panthers almost disappeared from the wild in Florida in the 1970s when their numbers fell to fewer than 30.
The Lee County baseball complex just happens to be south of the Caloosahatchee River, the heart of Florida panther country, or more precisely what is left of it. The panther once ranged eight south-central states — east to Arkansas, through parts of Tennessee and South Carolina and south to the swamps of Florida. Today the only thriving population estimated at 100 to 160 cats is tucked south of the Caloosahatchee River.
Threats to the survival of this majestic cat are interrelated. In addition to cars, the current challenges are loss of habitat and human/panther interaction. With a human population expected to nearly double in Lee and Collier counties by 2030, there will be more cars and more development in dwindling panther habitat.
With three panthers killed in the first two weeks of 2012 — two by cars — this year got off to a bad start. Twenty four panther deaths were recorded in 2011, nine from collisions with vehicles. Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have observed radio-collared females with newborn cubs, so the hope is the numbers are holding steady.
But the bottom line is the panthers need more room.
One way to help is to give them access to more habitat north of the Caloosahatchee River. The area is still largely working ranchlands in many places and young male panthers are roaming there. But unfortunately only the male panthers are crossing the river: the females are not making the mad dash from the trees to the river bank. We need to establish a natural population north of the river to ensure the panther’s survival.
The Nature Conservancy is working urgently with federal and state partners to buy a key parcel; the radio collar data show one particular crossing spot favored by the cats. Efforts are in high gear to permanently protect this site, a 1,278-acre ranch site we call Panther Crossing (regular spelling), plus several miles of river front and thousands of acres of access habitat.
What can you do?
Private support is critical to buying conservation land right now as the state has drastically reduced the amount of public money it is spending through its once-thriving Florida Forever program. The Nature Conservancy is seeking private donations to help.
Many other species will benefit by protecting the wide range needed by the panther: Florida black bear, fox squirrels, wading birds, birds of prey like caracara, bald eagles and kites, to name just a few. Keeping these areas from being paved will maintain habitat for these species and help the water supply for the future.
Perhaps we can pass the hat at the next baseball game. Red Sox fans are a dedicated bunch – we need that kind of passion to ward off this possible extinction. You can help pass the word that we all need to care about the future of the endangered Florida panther and consider becoming a donor. A secure donation toward our habitat protection work in Florida can be made by clicking here.
And one last thing…. heed those south Florida panther signs!
“People who slow down and drive carefully in rural areas, especially where panther crossings are identified, can make a difference in conservation of this endangered species,” says Kipp Frohlich, head of the Imperiled Species Management Section at the FWC. “It is especially important to slow down and keep a careful lookout at dawn or dusk, when panthers are most likely to be on the move.”
(Image: Panther Xing sign in Ft. Myers, Florida. Image source: TNC)