Florida panthers critically endangered as numbers fall below 200

Florida panthers critically endangered as numbers fall below 200

I’m driving through southwestern Florida with photographer Carlton Ward Jr, on a busy highway outside of Naples. The roadways are lined with palm and pine trees, and the early humidity is oppressive. As he drives, backcountry supplies and camera equipment rattle in the backseat.

We’re tracking down the elusive Florida panther. Scientists estimate that about 200 of them survive in the wild in the United States, so our chances of seeing one are small.

These carnivores used to roam most of the southeastern United States, lean and fawn-colored. The panther population in southwestern Florida had decreased to an estimated 20 individuals at one point.

Ward, a National Geographic adventurer and excellent conservation photographer, has captured some of the most exciting – and up close – photos of the big cats in the hopes of calling attention to their fight against extinction.

Panthers require wide swathes of contiguous habitat to hunt, mate, and raise their kids in order to live in ecological harmony. Climate change and development are putting a strain on their already strewn environment.

Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian, is a key proponent of the Florida Animals Corridor, a proposal to conserve and connect 17.7 million acres of land so that panthers and other wildlife can migrate freely within their natural habitat.

Floridians are almost out of time to save the last of the state’s native habitat – only about 15% remains. Conservation efforts have significant bipartisan support in Florida, but are up against a tsunami of housing development. One million people move to Florida every three years.

Those changes are visible on our drive: we pass human-made canals, dozens of For Sale signs, and the occasional high-density neighborhood, all reminders that fragmented panther populations can only survive for so long before development engulfs their last chances of habitat preservation and connection.

To illustrate the panthers’ need for a connected landscape, Ward brings me to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which, at 26,400 acres, is still not enough to support a single panther’s home range. Female panthers require 40-80 square miles to establish their territory; male panthers require 200.

Wildlife biologist Mark Danaher greets us. A charismatic backcountry expert, he’s the kind of scientist who manages an enormous and complex refuge but can also handle poisonous rattlesnakes. We jump into his ATV and drive past wetlands and stands of slash pines to visit a wildlife underpass, where Danaher kneels to point out panther tracks in the sand.

Overhead the traffic from I-75 – the interstate highway that crosses through the Everglades and then runs north – is deafening. Vehicle strikes are the leading cause of death for Florida panthers. But overpasses and underpasses, like those installed by the refuge, are proving effective.

In 2012, a trail camera at the refuge captured a Florida panther moving three cubs. One became known as “Broketail” for her injured tail’s distinctive crimping.

In January 2022, a camera captured Broketail, now 10 years old, using the safety of the underpass to move her own three cubs from the neighboring Picayune Strand state forest to the heart of the refuge.

“She was born here, and now she’s teaching her own kittens how to hunt and navigate the landscape,” Danaher tells me. “It’s a testament to her intelligence and survival skills.”

It’s also a testament to the power of connectivity. The underpasses work.

“Wildlife can do a lot with a little help,” Ward says. “We just have to give them a chance.”

That afternoon, Ward and I drive into the backcountry of Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to visit another piece of the corridor puzzle. Corkscrew is a 13,000 acre refuge with 500-year-old cypress trees and wetlands managed for wildlife. At 21 square miles, the sanctuary isn’t large enough for a panther’s home range, but female panthers are known to raise cubs there.

I sit down at a shaded picnic table to talk with the sanctuary’s director, Lisa Korte. “We believe in maintaining corridors,” Korte says. “Animals shouldn’t be dead-ended. We’re a place where a panther can feel safe.”

Proposed developments to the north and west of Corkscrew’s boundaries put this goal at risk. To ensure the best outcomes, Korte says the sanctuary is friendly with its neighbors, models native habitat management, and encourages buffer zones between the sanctuary and housing developments.

While at Corkscrew, we check Ward’s camera traps and stop to view some of the last old-growth cypress trees, known panther watering holes, and barbed wire fences where panthers have been photographed moving between ranches and the sanctuary.

A bear near the highway in Florida. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr
A bear near the highway in Florida. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr

At dusk, Ward captures drone footage of traffic hurtling along I-75. He’s indefatigable, always searching for a compelling shot that will help others realize the plight of the panther, and the need to conserve and connect land. In pursuit of this goal, he has even been bitten by an alligator while checking a camera trap.

After nightfall, we stop by an old metal bridge which lies across the Caloosahatchee river, a feature which often restricts the contemporary northern range of the panther. Ward hopes that one day a healthy breeding population of panthers will extend northward from here, perhaps even to the Georgia border.

Standing on the bridge, I’m disoriented by the dark water, lights and traffic. Recently someone captured an image of a panther limping across this very spot at night – on what must have been an arduous, disconcerting and biologically necessary trip.

Before arriving in Florida, I spoke about wildlife corridors with renowned road ecologist Marcel Huijser. “Animals need food, water and mates,” he explained to me over a Zoom call from Montana. “It’s dangerous for them to pursue these needs across the road.”

Generally, Huijser says, most departments of transportation make decisions on wildlife mitigation measures based on human safety and economics, but rarely factor in the value of animal lives. “We don’t yet agree on the value of biological conservation,” he said.

While warning signage is inexpensive and popular, he adds that “there are no easy answers to complex problems, but that’s what people want: a quick fix, simple, inexpensive, done tomorrow. Instead, we have to stay focused on the problems, and change our economic priorities, because it’s expensive to do nothing.”

A recent study showed a discrepancy between how Americans value wildlife, and how the DOTs design roads. When surveyed, people indicated they wanted better outcomes for wildlife – through fencing and over- and underpasses – and were willing to pay for it.

“It’s not just about if a species can survive,” Huijser said. “But can they live a natural life?”

Though it goes against the popular narrative about Florida politics, conservation enjoys broad bipartisan support in the state. Republican governors approved (and later undermined) earlier initiatives like Florida Preservation 2000, which allotted $300m a year for conservation purchases, and Florida Forever, a Jeb Bush initiative that has saved more than 800,000 acres.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law in June 2021, may be the most progressive yet.

Astoundingly, the state senate passed the act – which defines the boundaries of the corridor – with a vote of 40-0, and the house with a vote of 115-0. A budget of $300m has been set aside for corridor-specific preservation, and an additional $100m for Florida Forever (80% of projects in the Florida Forever initiative are inside the orridor’s boundaries).

“The corridor is ambitious,” Ward says, “but achievable, if lawmakers keep investing in the conservation easements and public land acquisitions that will give landowners viable alternatives to development.”

Buck Island Ranch in Highlands county, Florida, is managed by the Archbold Biological Station. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr
Buck Island Ranch in Highlands county, Florida, is managed by the Archbold Biological Station. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr

Florida’s forward-looking corridor project provides a blueprint for other states to follow when contributing to President Biden’s 30-by-30 conservation plan – the goal to conserve and restore 30% of America’s land and rivers.

Ward tells me that some of the best conservation opportunities are not in perfectly open and conserved land, but working lands: ranches (which constitute 33% of the best future opportunities for additions to the corridor), timberlands (43%), former tomato fields, orange groves, and even an enormous active military zone known as the Avon Park Air Force range – which contains swaths of undeveloped habitat.

Ward’s family still owns traditional ranches. His comfort in the back country endears him to scientists, sportsmen, private landowners and traditional ranchers, making him a critical connection point for corridor support.

“I believe in academic conservation targets,” Ward says. “But these high-level goals need to be met with on-the-ground strategies, built from local consensus. That’s where wildlife corridors come in. When approached the right way, they can bring people together to establish enduring bipartisan support.”

At the end of our first day in the field, Ward and I drive into Archbold Biological Station, a center focused on sharing science for land management. Founded in 1941, Archbold lies within the headwaters of the Everglades, on top of a raised topographical feature of ancient sand dunes.

The next morning, I awake to the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms from neighboring citrus groves, many of which are untouched due to labor shortages and a bacterial disease called citrus greening. You can feel change in the margins of the landscape.

After coffee, Ward introduces me to predator biologist Joe Guthrie, another corridor advocate. Guthrie – a former football player from Kentucky who reads the New Yorker but also regularly collars bears – cranks up a swamp buggy, a custom vehicle made on top of a truck chassis. We spend a few hours driving through varied and endangered Florida landscapes on large ranches, including patches of ancient scrub that host rare endemic plants.

A Florida panther using an underpass. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr
A Florida panther using an underpass. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr

Guthrie shows me saw palmettos and oak hammocks, which, depending on the season, produce critical food sources for wildlife such as nuts and acorns – and provide good cover for dens. Invasive feral hogs and heat tolerant cattle move in the distance. An expert tracker, Guthrie easily spots bear claw marks on palm trunks and old prints. He explains the seasonal movements of predator species, and what they need from traditional Florida landscapes.

Later that afternoon, I board another swamp buggy with the charismatic Hilary Swain, the longtime director of the Archbold Research Station. Swain is a hardcore hybrid of a rancher and a scientist, the kind of woman who can talk about both carbon sequestration and the fattening of calves with ease. The scientific work done at Archbold’s ranch helps inform practices for other working lands – managing water flow, phosphorus levels and grazing patterns.

I’m astounded by the richness of central Florida’s ranchlands. Meadowlarks are singing in the grassy fields as Swain guides me through Archbold’s ranch; kestrels perch on the powerlines. Egrets and roseate spoonbills flush from the alligator-flecked swamps. When ranchers preserve native landscapes like slash pine and scrub and tolerate the presence of native species, including megafauna like bears and panthers, wildlife abounds – significantly more than if the land were a strip mall or housing development.

“Many private landowners are already good conservationists,” Swain says, a map of the ranch across her lap. “Ranchers have also realized that conservation can be good for the bottom line, in terms of easements and payments for environmental services and ecological tourism.”

“Most of us want to save this landscape and keep it sustainable. We’re saving the last of the last. What happens here in central Florida is not independent of what happens on the Florida coastline, or the country, for that matter.”

My last morning in Florida, Ward insists I visit another working ranch so that I can meet Cary Lightsey, a rancher he admires and credits with being an early adopter of the corridor concept. We drive on to the farm as cowboys on horseback prepare to round up a group of heifers and calves.

Lightsey’s son-in-law offers me a seat on the back of an ATV. In minutes we’re flying across the pasture, dipping in and out of wet ditches as we back up the skilful cowboys, one of whom is 81. They turn their horses on a dime and steer the cows from the pasture toward the barn, where the calves will be castrated and dewormed, then returned to their mothers.

A longtime vegetarian, I’m slightly uncomfortable, but perhaps that’s the point – learning to spot shared values and cooperate with people with whom you may not be fully aligned.

I quickly come to admire the skill and family atmosphere of Lightsey’s operation. Lightsey invites me to lunch, where I sit next to the blue-eyed 81-year-old cowboy, who tells wild stories about the traveling medicine shows of his boyhood.

When we say goodbye, the mutual respect between Ward and Lightsey is evident. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” Lightsey says.

“Cary Lightsey is a hero to me,” Ward tells me later. “I don’t know another living rancher who has done more for conservation. In addition to protecting 90% of his family’s land in conservation easements starting 30 years ago, his leadership has helped inspire other ranchers to do the same, including members of my own family.”

Florida’s bipartisan conservation efforts are not just inspiring; they’re the only path forward for biodiversity. Most people want to live in a Florida that is more than a series of housing developments. They want to live in a Florida where Broketail and her kittens can hunt and flourish, not die on the side of a highway.

I think about my conversation with Huijser. “If our current road and conservation efforts don’t reflect our values,” he said, “we can change them, and moreover, we should.”

These values – of offering safe passage to wildlife and preserving natural landscapes – are often more shared than we realize. Moreover, with planning and cooperation, they’re entirely possible.

When Ward and I were driving, he pointed out I-75’s 8ft-high fencing with reverse-angle barbed wire, which discourages wildlife from crossing the road. Just weeks ago, a female Florida panther died crossing the road near a toll booth where the fencing stopped.

This article by Megan Mayhew Bergman was first published by The Guardian on 23 March 2022. Lead Image: A Florida panther and her cubs. Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr.

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