How are Florida's wildfires impacting panther habitat?

Posted at 6:43 PM, Apr 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-14 18:43:06-04

Fire crews in Collier County are still battling the large "Cowbell" wildfire in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which has burned about 26 square miles of forest. The fire hasn't threatened any homes, but what about wildlife, such as the endangered Florida panther? The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge occupies land adjacent to Big Cypress, about 20 miles east of Naples.

"Panthers have been here for centuries," said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "They are quite adaptive."

She said wildlife underpasses below highways like State Route 29 and I-75 offer a way for panthers and other wildlife to move away from wildfires.

"They should be able to temporarily escape the fire, and then they would return to their home range," Payton said.

While that may be true for adult and juvenile panthers, it's not always the case for kittens. Payton recalls one wildfire several years ago in which four panther kittens were lost in a Collier County wildfire.

"The biologists would have rescued them," she said. "But the fire was apparently just too strong and too dangerous."

She said panther mothers can only move one kitten at a time. But as far as their habitat - which includes the large area burning in Big Cypress - panthers will eventually move back in.

"When the new growth occurs, it's very attractive to deer, which is panther prey," Payton said. 

Payton said she is not aware of any adult or juvenile panthers threatened by the Cowbell Fire, though it is burning land in which panthers frequently range.