CAPE CORAL, Fla — On September 5, Florida recorded the 22nd panther death this year in Collier County. The juvenile panther was hit by a vehicle. This is the same fate 19 of the 22 other panthers killed this year.
In the 1970s, the Florida Panther faced the brink of extinction. Today, the animal's south Florida population is estimated to be around 200, but wildlife experts say more needs to be done to increase that number.
“The panther used to exist widespread across the state of Florida, and throughout the southeastern United States,” said Carlton Ward Jr. “And the land, in their current core territory in south Florida, is only enough land to support approximately the 200 that are there today."
Carlton Ward Junior has studied panthers for years and released a National Geographic documentary in April called ‘Path of the Panther.’ Ward says for panthers to recover from an endangered status, the animal needs three times as much of its current territory. And while, male panthers have been detected as far north as Atlanta, Georgia, few female panthers have been known to be north of the Caloosahatchee River.
“So, they can make these distances,” said Ward. “But the female panthers, they are slower to expand their territory. It is just now that there are enough female panthers in south Florida, that they are starting to swim that river and show up in places like Glades County.”
Unfortunately, those female panthers do not have a good track record of survival.
“A total of four female panthers, have been verified north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973,” said Ward. “All in the past 2 or 3 years. In that same time, we also know of 2 female panthers have killed on the road by cars in that same territory.”
Ward is hopeful that there is a path to recovery. That said, with 1,000 people moving to Florida per day, it is still a challenge to protect the land needed to do so.
“The way I look at it, without investment in conservation, most of Florida, will probably be a subdivision 50 years from now.”
Wards says considering the 10 million acres of public land and 8 million acres of farmland or ranches, there is space in our state to help re-build the panther population
The challenge is helping those landowners keep that land green and outside of development.
“The losses to development, averaging around 100 thousand acres a year,” said Ward. “That is a huge amount of land. But we know if we can save the Florida Wildlife Corridor, if we can keep investing in that land protection, we have an opportunity to balance conservation and development and to save a path for the recovery of the panther.”
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation says the state needs to save 900 thousand acres of corridor before the end of this decade. That comes out to 10-thousand acres a month. That number is similar to the peak of Florida Forever program, the same program that gave the state its current network of state parks and national forests and refuges.
“It is the backbone for our conservation in Florida,” said Ward. "And now we need to finish the job and help fill in those gaps and those missing links.”
Florida unanimously passed the bipartisan Wildlife Corridor Act in 2021. That secured $400-million in funding to protect interconnected natural areas in the state - an investment Ward hopes will continue in the future to not only protect the panther, but all of Florida's beauty.