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Discovery of Florida panther kittens near Everglades buoys hope for the endangered cats

A Florida panther kitten is caught on a trail camera north of the Caloosahatchee River.

Florida panther kittens have been discovered in a part of the state where they had not been seen before, a sign that the endangered cat is expanding its range.

Trail cameras have captured photographs of a female panther with two kittens in Charlotte County north of the Caloosahatchee River, showing that the panthers’ breeding range has crossed a river long considered a barrier to the expansion of the species.

The discovery gives further hope for the survival of a species once thought either extinct or close to it, showing that panthers have found a way to conquer territory beyond the swath of southwest Florida where the vast majority of them live.

“This is good news for Florida panther conservation,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director for the habitat and species conservation for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Until now, we only had evidence of panthers breeding south of the Caloosahatchee. These pictures of a female with kittens indicate there are now panthers breeding north of the river.”

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Although male panthers have long roamed north of the river, having been denied territory in the species’ core range by dominant males, the first female panther was only documented north of the river last year.

The Caloosahatchee River, which flows along the northern edge of the Everglades, empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 10 miles southwest of Fort Myers. Cameras deployed at the Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area confirmed the female’s presence and then found the kittens.

Panthers remain threatened by real estate development that chips away at their core habitat in Collier and Lee counties, from the fast-growing suburbs of Naples and Fort Myers.

Environmentalists, while heartened by the news, say the panther’s land still needs more protection.

“It’s great we now have conclusive proof that Florida panthers are reoccupying their native habitats,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are so fortunate in Florida to have such impressive creatures still sharing these lands with us. Now we need to do everything we can to ensure they have a place in our future by conserving the space they need to thrive.”

A female Florida panther is caught by a trail camera.
(Sun Sentinel)

Once thought to have declined to just 20 or 30, the species has responded robustly to conservation efforts, including the protection of territory and the addition to the population of Texas panthers, called cougars, to provide genetic diversity to a population that was becoming inbred. In February, state and federal wildlife agencies announced more good news for the species, sharply revising upward the panthers’ population estimate, from a maximum estimate of 180 to 230.

The panther’s core range runs from the ranchlands west of Lake Okeechobee through Big Cypress National Preserve to the southeastern part of Everglades National Park, with some venturing into the outskirts of Naples and Fort Myers.

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They kill deer, hogs and other animals. Males claim huge territories for themselves, forcing younger males to roam to the fringes of their habitat, which has often taken them north of the river and into central Florida.

The increase in the panther population has not been greeted with applause throughout all of southwest Florida.

Developers worry that the presence of an endangered species will make it difficult to build on their land. Hunters don’t like the competition for deer and hogs. Ranchers and homeowners have lost calves, goats, chickens and pets to the panthers. A few panthers have been shot over the past few years, with the perpetrators rarely caught.

Record numbers have been killed by vehicles in the last few years.

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But state officials say news of the kittens is further evidence of the species’ rebound.

“This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally,” said Darrell Land, the state wildlife commission’s panther team leader.

Brian Yablonski, chairman of the wildlife commission, said, “This is a major milestone on the road to recovery for the Florida panther.”

Fleshler writes for the Sun Sentinel.

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