by Craig Pittman | May 27, 2016

Florida Panthers: Where are They Now?

The big cats clawed their way out of near extinction (with a little help from conservationists), only to face their biggest threat yet: suburban sprawl.

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Florida has a lot of state symbols. To name a few: a state flower, the orange blossom; a state butterfly, the zebra longwing; a state shell,the horse conch; and even a state soil, Myakka fine sand. Of course Florida has an official bird—no, not the construction crane, it’s the mockingbird—as well as a state reptile, the American alligator.

PANTHERS_SUM 16_525But only one critter bears the distinction as our “official” state animal: the Florida panther. The state’s schoolchildren selected it in a 1981 vote over the alligator, the manatee, the Key deer and a few others that got write-in ballots, such as the mosquito. Panthers are so popular among Floridians they’ve become the mascot for dozens of schools, the namesake of the Miami pro hockey team and the decoration on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, which are sold to fund panther research.

It’s easy to see why panthers are so exalted. The big cats are sleek and tawny, muscular predators who prowl the night in deep silence. The males weigh 100 to 180 pounds, the females 70 to 100, and they generally measure 6 to 7 feet long from nose to tail. A male can range for 200 square miles—an area about five times the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom—while a female can range about 75 square miles. The Florida panther’s profile is more patrician than that of most felines, with a high brow and a classic Roman nose, the kind you’d expect to find on a king.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago when a lot of smart people thought there were no panthers left in Florida. They were very nearly right. Panthers still exist in Florida’s wilder places in large part due to the work of two people—a veteran Texas hunter and a passionate veterinarian from the Pacific Northwest. Few Floridians have ever heard their names.

Cat Status and Stats

Florida’s early settlers had no love for panthers, which they called “lions,” “catamounts” and “cougars.” They killed every one they saw, viewing them as a threat to their families and their livestock. In 1874, a writer noted that the creature was “spoken of with dread by the crackers.” In 1887, the Florida legislature put a $5 bounty on panthers statewide—the equivalent of $125 today. Meanwhile, as people came pouring into Florida (in a steady stream that continues to this day), they began wiping out the places where panthers lived and the things they ate, such as deer. Decades of lost habitat, dwindling prey and human depredation took a heavy toll.

In 1935, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post went on a panther hunt in the Big Cypress Swamp in Collier County. In six weeks of hunting, his party found and killed just eight panthers, fewer than they had expected. He wrote that he picked that location because Big Cypress and the Everglades “are the last strongholds of the panther in the eastern United States.” By 1958, the Florida legislature, alarmed that the cats might disappear, had banned panther hunting.

When the first federal endangered species list came out in 1967, Florida panthers were on it. Some Florida officials regarded that as a misnomer; they were sure the cats were already extinct. An environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund, wasn’t convinced. In 1972, they hired a somewhat unlikely expert to determine the truth.

Roy McBride brought specially trained Walker fox-hunting hounds to South Florida and turned them loose to find panthers. Photograph by Tim donovan for FWC

Roy McBride brought specially trained Walker fox-hunting hounds to South Florida and turned them loose to find panthers. Photograph by Tim Donovan for FWC

Hiring a Hero

Roy McBride was born in 1936 in the mountains of West Texas. The place was so rural that when he talked about driving into town, he meant going 100 miles to the small community of Alpine, passing only one other house along the way.

Panther tracker, Roy McBride. Photograph by Connie Bransilver

Panther tracker, Roy McBride. Photograph by Connie Bransilver

By the 1950s, McBride had begun working for local sheep ranchers. His specialty would have made Florida’s settlers happy: He was an expert at tracking and killing the mountain lions that preyed on the sheep. One writer said that McBride was so good that he “had more to do with bringing the mountain lion to the verge of extinction in Texas than any other single person.”

The first time I met McBride was at a 2007 panther conference in St. Petersburg. I did a long interview with him early on and have had a couple follow up conversations with him. He looked like he was dreamed up by a Hollywood casting director: tall and lanky, with a chiseled chin, eyes the color of washed denim, a lock of hair he has to keep pushing back from his forehead, only to have it fall back down again. McBride tends to wear his battered white Stetson everywhere, even indoors. When he talks, he’s terse and to the point, his tenor voice sounds a bit raspy, with a strong Western twang—“things” becomes “thangs.” He so dislikes talking about himself that one biologist claims he spent two years working with McBride before finding out he had a master’s degree in biology.

In addition to mountain lions, McBride took on other predators—wolves, for instance. His account of spending nearly a year in Mexico tracking an elusive wolf named Las Margaritas became the basis for Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. But after a while, McBride once told me, he lost his sympathy for the sheep. He began to feel more of a kinship with the predators—particularly the mountain lions. Then came the call from the World Wildlife Fund: Would he travel to Florida and look for panthers, not to kill them, but to prove that they still existed?

Searching for Signs

As he began his investigation in 1972, McBride talked to one state biologist who said that “he never had seen any tracks or any indications there were any [panthers] left. So there really was not any kind of scientific information about if they still existed, where they were or how many were left.”

McBride's tracking dog; Photograph by Connie Bransilver

McBride’s tracking dog; Photograph by Connie Bransilver

The lanky Texan brought his pack of dogs—specially trained Walker fox-hunting hounds—to South Florida and turned them loose. They sniffed around for four to six weeks, starting near the Lykes Brothers ranch in Highlands County and gradually working their way south to the Big Cypress Swamp between Naples and the Everglades.

The terrain was as different as could be from what McBride and his dogs were used to. Instead of mountains, the land was as flat as a billiard table. Instead of crossing desert, they were splashing through swamps. Instead of being far from civilization, they were just down the road from rampant suburban sprawl.

“I thought of Florida as big cities, lots of people,” McBride told me. “I was getting used to the idea that probably there weren’t any [panthers].” He’d hunted for them in other states east of the Mississippi River—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama—but hadn’t found any. Yet this time, in this most unlikely place, the big cats were there.

“I found evidence of some panthers,” McBride recalled years later. “Not many, but a few.” He didn’t actually see one of the felines, mind you, but his dogs uncovered panther tracks, some scat full of bones and scrape marks that the cats typically leave behind with their huge rear paws after they urinate.

A year later, McBride was hired to go back and look again. This time, near Fisheating Creek, which flows southwest of Lake Okeechobee, his dogs treed a spindly female panther, its hide full of ticks. He also found more signs of panthers than he’d found the year before. “I was amazed to find them,” McBride said. “I got down here in this thickly settled area, and I was really surprised there were any left.”

McBride’s success led him to teach his methods to state biologists, who wanted to track down more Florida panthers, put radio collars on them, follow them around and learn their ways. McBride was hired to help, and eventually his two sons and his grandson joined him.

The terrain made the work extraordinarily difficult. “Back in those days we did not have swamp buggies,” McBride recalled later. “We did not have ATVs. We just walked.” When McBride’s hounds would tree an animal, one of the state biologists would shoot the panther with a tranquilizer dart and it would fall into a net. Once it was safely on the ground they could examine it closely, then strap a radio transmitter around its neck, allowing the biologists to track the panther’s signals.

Then tragedy struck—an accident that became a turning point for saving the species.

Protecting Panthers from Ourselves

The first leader of the state panther-capture team was a soft-spoken biologist from Tennessee named Chris Belden. In 1981, when they started work, he was the one who climbed the tree to bring down the first tranquilized panther. He wound up falling out of the tree along with the panther, a 120-pound male. Somehow both survived unscathed.

PANTHERS.2_SUM 16_960

An estimated 100 to 180 adult panthers now roam South Florida.

Two years later, things wouldn’t go so well—for the panther or for Belden. On January 17, 1983, McBride’s dogs treed a panther, one the team had collared before and designated as Florida Panther 3 (FP3 for short). It was a female, and not particularly robust. One of the team members raised the tranquilizer gun and fired a dart at the cat. FP3 was dead by the time it hit the ground.

One team member, a biologist named Debra Jansen, tried to revive it with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, to no avail. Belden picked up the 70-pound panther and carried it out of the swamp slung over his shoulders, his heart heavy with grief and guilt. “At that point it felt like I was carrying the weight of the whole subspecies on my shoulders,” he said later. “If the panther went extinct, it would be my fault.”

Although the death was an accident—an expert later said the panther had gotten too much of a tranquilizer dose too quickly—an uproar ensued. Everglades doyenne Marjory Stoneman Douglas led the pack of protestors calling for an end to collaring panthers. Leave the poor cats alone, they said, and let them go extinct in peace!

Instead of ending the program, Belden’s superiors at the state game commission made two changes. First, they replaced Belden as the capture team leader, making him the scapegoat for what happened to FP3. (However, he would continue to do valuable panther research for the state and later the federal government for another three decades). Then they hired a veterinarian to accompany the capture team, to make sure nothing like this happened again. (It has not.) “The edict that was given to me as the vet for the team was ‘Don’t hurt anybody!’” that first veterinarian, Melody Roelke, told me during our first interview in 2008. We’ve talked several times about panthers since then.

Crossbreeding Cats

Roelke grew up on a farm in Oregon. When Florida game officials hired her, she’d been working for three years in her home state for a drive-through animal attraction called Wildlife Safari, where she’d documented serious medical problems with the cheetahs. She had curly brown hair that fell to her shoulders, intense brown eyes and an inability to sit still. One biologist called her “the Turbo-Vet.” Another nicknamed her “Sparky,” but that was for the time she accidentally sat on some electrical wiring for a spotlight and got shocked.

What Roelke found more shocking than that spark to her posterior was the condition of the panthers the team was rounding up, rather than the species’ number. “Right away it became extremely apparent that the Florida panther was in trouble,” she said. “They had maybe a quarter of the diversity of other panthers. Their sperm quality was the worst seen in any male I had ever examined. It just looked absolutely horrific.”

Roelke began raising questions about panther genetics. With so few Florida panthers left in the wild—a mere 20 to 30—the cats had gotten caught in an inbreeding loop, producing kittens with genetic defects: Their hearts had holes, or the males’ testicles failed to descend. They were sliding toward oblivion. Initially, the state tried a captive-breeding program, but it ran into trouble. Because the kittens they captured for breeding had serious genetic problems, the program would just pass the bad genes along to a new generation.

Roelke and her team preparing to release a panther in 1987; Photograph by Florida Game and Fish Commission

Roelke and her team preparing to release a panther in 1987; Photograph by Florida Game and Fish Commission

At that point, Roelke said, “We were down to the absolute last straw, the last possibility of survival.” In desperation, state and federal officials approved a risky plan. They dispatched McBride to Texas to bring back female mountain lions, whose genetic makeup was close enough to that of the Florida panthers for them to pass as cousins. Such a cross-breeding experiment had never been tried before, and no one knew whether it would work.

McBride brought eight female mountain lions to South Florida and turned them loose. As the Texas felines bred with male panthers, they produced kittens that were free of genetic defects. Some biologists had feared the genes of the Texas cats would “swamp” those of the Florida panthers, but that didn’t happen. In fact, the experiment did more than just banish the defects: Because the kittens now had a better chance of surviving into adulthood, the experiment spurred a panther population boom.

“There’s cats all over hell and gone out there now,” Roelke joked. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (successor to the old game commission) estimates there are now between 100 and 180 adult panthers roaming around. But that has created a new problem, because panthers need a lot of room to roam.

Panthers’ Plight

In the 23 years since McBride’s Texas cats were tracked, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not blocked a single Florida development that would alter the panther habitat. Four former agency employees admitted that every time they resisted such development, “we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster.” They said their superiors used blatantly phony science to allow people to build subdivisions, strip malls, even a couple of universities, right in the middle of land the panthers needed to dwell—more than 100 projects, covering more than 40,000 acres.

When one federal biologist filed a whistleblower suit against his agency in 2004, he was fired. “The office is already known for drive-through permitting,” he wrote. Ultimately his bosses had to admit he was right and reinstate him, but he was assigned to an office far from Florida.

Now there are more panthers than there have been in decades, but squeezed into a smaller space than before. They’re showing up in people’s yards, peering through their sliding glass doors, gobbling up their backyard chickens. Ranchers have complained about losing calves to panthers, and several panthers have been shot, some fatally.

McBride in Big Cypress Swamp in 2009; Photograph by Tim Donovan for FWC

McBride in Big Cypress Swamp in 2009; Photograph by Tim Donovan for FWC

The solution to this problem would be to find the expanding population some new habitat, either in Florida or in some other state. So far, though, states with potential panther habitats—places where pumas once lived, for instance—say they don’t want any new predators.

That leaves Florida. There are places in Central and Northern Florida that could accommodate panthers. This has been demonstrated by male panthers who have swum across the Caloosahatchee River—the northern boundary of current panther habitat—and ranged far and wide across the state, one making it as far as Georgia. Creating a new panther colony, though, would require female panthers too.

Although there’s been talk of transplanting a few females north of the Caloosahatchee, federal officials have repeatedly said that they want the females to make that move on their own. They’d prefer it to be a natural occurrence, not something facilitated by humans. However, since the tracking of Florida panthers began, not a single female has crossed the river to set up house elsewhere. The current habitat is limiting the panthers’ future, like a prison cell where the walls are slowly closing in.

As McBride once wrote, “The future of the panther depends on whether the agencies and the public want them badly enough to preserve wild Florida and all that goes with it. … Just as beavers cut down big trees with little bites, so goes what’s left of Florida’s wildness.”

The panthers can’t save themselves. They need help from humans—their greatest enemy and their only hope.

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