TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Wildlife officials say they have evidence of endangered Florida panthers breeding north the Caloosahatchee River, encouraging news for efforts to try to expand the population of the big cats.
The panthers once roamed the southeastern U.S., but their range now is limited to southwest Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates up to 230 panthers remain in the wild.
The Caloosahatchee River had appeared to block their expansion northward. But in a statement Monday, wildlife officials said they've verified the presence of at least two kittens north of the river. They're apparently the offspring of a female spotted by trail cameras since 2015.
Panther team leader Darrell Land said that earlier this year, the cameras captured images of a female panther that appeared to be nursing.
Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski called the birth "a major milestone" for the panther's recovery.
“We have had regular documentation of males north of the Caloosahatchee, but this is the first time we have solid evidence of a female being this far north in more than 40 years,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy division director for Habitat and Species Conservation. “This is a big deal for panther conservation. An expansion of the panther’s breeding range should improve the prospects for recovery.”
Using trail cameras, biologists have monitored male panthers on various public and private lands north of the Caloosahatchee River for several years. In 2015, biologists collected a photo of what appeared to be a female panther in Charlotte County. They deployed additional cameras in the summer of 2016 and captured more images of what they believe is a female panther. However, the photographs did not positively confirm the gender.
In early November, a biologist discovered female panther tracks near a camera that had captured some of the photos in question. Because male panther tracks are larger than female tracks, the track provided strong evidence of a female at this location.
“This appears to be the milestone we’ve hoped for. We have been working with landowners to secure wildlife corridors to help panthers travel from south Florida, cross the river and reach this important panther habitat,” said Larry Williams, state ecological services supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “While we do not know if this female used these tracts of land, we do know that securing lands that facilitate the natural expansion of the panther population are critical to achieving full recovery.”
“Florida panthers are part of our state heritage. They’re our state animal,” said Frohlich. “We want to ensure these majestic animals are here for future generations of Floridians. Female panthers moving north of the river on their own is a big step toward this goal.”