Keeping An Eye On Florida’s Panther Population
The Florida panther is iconic enough to have lent its name to an NHL team, but the cat species itself is endangered, with only a few hundred adults remaining in the wild. Over the past 36 years, researchers have been capturing Florida panthers and placing tracking collars on them in an effort to learn more about the cats’ habitats and behaviors. Craig Pittman, staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, says that the capture-and-collar program may be coming to an end, as methods of studying wildlife have evolved.
Craig Pittman is a Staff Writer for the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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IRA FLATOW: This is when we take a closer look at science in the states. And today in Florida, where the Florida panther is iconic enough to be an NHL team, but the cat species itself is endangered. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates there are only a couple of hundred adult panthers in the wild. But how best to monitor them? Craig Pittman, staff writer at The Tampa Bay Times, has the details. There’s a link to his article on our website. Welcome back to the program.
CRAIG PITTMAN: Thanks very much.
IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about this. For those of us not familiar, describe a Florida panther for us.
CRAIG PITTMAN: Well, they’re part of the puma species we see in different places around the country, that once roamed widely across our wilderness areas. And as wilderness diminished, so did their habitat and their population. But they are the only recognized puma species east of the Mississippi that’s left. And they’re kind of mostly all pushed down into the southern tip of the state, down where the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve are located. And at one point, there were only about 20 of them left, in 1995. And thanks to some very diligent efforts there, they now have about 200– still classified as endangered, obviously, but doing somewhat better than they used to be.
IRA FLATOW: So I guess we need to track them because we really don’t know where they go and live and hang out?
CRAIG PITTMAN: Well, yeah, when they were first added to the endangered species list, when the first endangered species list came out, there were some state officials that were convinced it was all moot, because they thought they were extinct already. And so the World Wildlife Fund actually hired a Texas tracker named Roy McBride, who’s sort of legendary in those circles, to come down to Florida and find out if there were still panthers. And Roy managed to track one down, just a sort of spindly old female, and proved that panthers still existed. And he found panther signs through the rest of the landscape.
So in 1981, the guy who was put in charge of the Florida panther program for the state, a guy named Chris Belden, he got permission to– very reluctant permission, I should add– to go out with Roy and Roy’s dogs and track down a couple of panthers and put radio collars on them, so they could find out where the panthers go, where they like to live, you know, that kind of thing. It’s just your basic science. And it was apparently a pretty adventurous trip with him out there. Because they tracked down a panther. They shot it with a tranquilizer dart up in a tree, and then it didn’t come down. Didn’t come down out of the tree. So Belden actually had to climb the tree to try to bring the panther down. And they both fell out of the tree at the same time. [LAUGHTER]
IRA FLATOW: Comes with the job.
CRAIG PITTMAN: But they survived. Yeah, exactly.
IRA FLATOW: So why do they want to stop it now? I mean, what’s the problem? What’s the issue?
CRAIG PITTMAN: Well, it’s not– you know, they’ve been doing this radio collar thing, you know, chasing the panthers with the dogs, tranquilizing them, and putting the radio collars on them ever since, since 1981. So 36 years– that’s, I think, the longest science project in Florida.
But they say that now they have better techniques for learning about panther life and that kind of thing, that the capture-and-collar program yielded some tremendous information, but now they have better ways. For instance, trap cameras, where the cameras are put out in places where they know the panthers are, and they are motion-sensitive. So when a panther passes by, they get pictures of it. That was the way they found out that they had finally had a female panther cross over the Caloosahatchee River and show up more in the central Florida area for the first time.
IRA FLATOW: Now of course, if you just take a picture of one, you can’t examine them, right, and see if they’re healthy.
CRAIG PITTMAN: No. And that’s the objection. One biologist I talked to, a woman named Deborah Jansen, who was along on that 1981 trip and has been studying with panthers ever since, studying panthers ever since for the National Park Service in Big Cypress– she contends that there’s still a value to continuing to do these capturing and collar things. Because you examine the panthers. You learn about their medical condition. If there’s a potential for an epidemic– they almost had an epidemic of feline leukemia at one point– then you can deal with that with inoculations and so forth.
But the guy who’s in charge of the program, Darrell Land, who’s the panther team leader for the Wildlife Commission, he said, you know, it’s very stressful for the cats. And he gave me this great quote. He said that they would probably prefer not to be chased up a tree by dogs, shot in the butt, go into a drug-induced coma, fall out of a tree, and wake up with bling.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ve got to leave it at that, Craig. Thank you very much, Craig Pittman, of The Tampa Bay Times. We’ll be right back after this break. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI.