Rare sight: Female Florida panther, kitten caught on camera north of Caloosahatchee
A panther milestone has been reached again as another female has been documented north of the Caloosahatchee River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently recorded a female with a 4- to 5-month old kitten in tow.
Males are often seen north of the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee, but it has been decades since females have regularly roamed this region of the Sunshine State.
That changed in 2016, when evidence of a female was found in Charlotte County.
Scientists say it's the next step in panther recovery, but that the state animal is still threatened by habitat loss and road kills.
"Expanding that breeding range to more than one or two individuals north of the river is certainly the next step," said Kevin Godsea, director of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples. "It definitely shows signs of an expanding range. Getting north of the river is a huge step forward."
Male panthers have been documented as far north as Georgia in recent decades, but females have stayed in the more reclusive, wild lands of South Florida.
Expanding the breeding population north to Central Florida is listed as the second management goal identified in the FWS Florida panther recovery plan.
Before 2016, the last time a female was seen north of the river was 1973, the same year the Endangered Species Act was passed.
Eastern Collier County is home to the center of the breeding population, and researchers believe there are between 120 and 230 adults in this group.
The female found north of the river in 2016 was identified by using a plaster type cast of paw prints.
Scientists said the paw prints were too small to have come from a male panther, and they were larger than the prints a bobcat would leave.
Now the agencies have more visual proof of female panthers north of the river, after FWS and FWC captured footage of the female and her kitten.
Panther advocacy groups say having a female with a kitten north of the river is a great step toward panther recovery, but that habitat loss and other threats are still impacting the big cats.
"I think that documenting females with young kittens north of the river is a really positive outlook for the species," said Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation. "The ultimate goal is full recovery, and in order for us to achieve that they’re going to need to be able to expand their range."
Amber Crooks, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said footage of a female north of the Caloosahatchee River is a milestone but that many threats still linger for panthers.
"It’s exciting to hear of reproduction happening north of the river," Crooks said. "We’re cautiously optimistic in hopes that reproduction can be successful north of the river, but the core population south of the river is still under immense threat from development and traffic. And then of course you’ve got the new disorder that is affecting panthers, and FWC is still trying to understand the implications of that."
The neurological disorder has impacted several panthers over the past few months, and some have had to be euthanized.
FWC scientists are still trying to determine exactly what is causing the disorder, which causes the cats to stagger.
Getting a population established north of the Caloosahatchee River is on of the top goals listed in the panther recovery plan, which calls for three separate populations of at least 240 individuals.
Those other two populations would likely be outside of Florida, possibly in Georgia or the more remote areas of Missouri.
"It's going to take time for a breeding population to really exist there," Godsea said. "Having a few kittens a couple of years ago and now this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a substantial population north of the river."
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