Nursing Female Trail Cam catches the nursing female panther on 1-15-17. This was one in a series of photos that verified the presence of a nursing female and at least two panther kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. These kittens are presumed to be the offspring of the first wild female panther documented north of the river since 1973.
Last year, state wildlife biologists said that they had spotted what they believed to be a female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time since 1973, a promising sign for the future of an endangered species that’s been cooped up in the state’s southwestern region for decades.
But they said they couldn’t be sure unless the panther had kittens.
Now they’re sure.
Wildlife biologists announced Monday that they’ve verified the presence of at least two kittens in that same area where they saw the female panther.
“This is good news for Florida panther conservation,” said Kipp Frohlich of 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.”
Panthers, Florida’s official state animal, once ranged across all the southeastern states. But by the 1970s the remnants of that population were found only in what was left of the wilderness in southwest Florida. The population had dropped to as few as 20 or 30, and many were suffering from genetic defects due to inbreeding.
A bold experiment in 1995 brought in eight female cougars from Texas — a close cousin of the Florida panther — to refresh the gene pool. As a result, more panthers survived into adulthood, and now the population is estimated to be nearing 200.
Yet even as the population grew, the panthers lost habitat to rampant development and mining. Panthers couldn’t be declared saved from extinction unless there were at least two new colonies started somewhere else.
Male panthers, which need more room to roam than the females, began crossing the Caloosahatchee River and venturing north, one even making it as far as Georgia. But not the females.
For decades, “the Caloosahatchee River has appeared to be a major obstacle to northward movement of female panthers,” said FWC panther team leader Darrell Land. “This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally.”