The Wild, Bizarre Battle to Save the Florida Panther


The Florida panther’s unlikely comeback is neatly summarized on the web site of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From round 20 surviving animals within the early 1970s (with the inhabitants probably reaching as few as six), there at the moment are greater than 200 and counting. The company credit this restoration to studious collaboration between federal and state officers, together with the introduction of life-saving genetic variety to the endangered panther inhabitants, in addition to conservation of significant habitat.

What the official description doesn’t point out, nonetheless, is the drama, particular person perseverance, and messy, generally blundering, realities that enabled the Florida panther to claw its approach again from the precipice of extinction. For a full account of this swampy, fraught historical past, readers can as an alternative flip to award-winning journalist Craig Pittman’s new guide, “Cat Story: The Wild, Bizarre Battle to Save the Florida Panther.”

Greater than a pure historical past monograph, “Cat Story” is the story of Florida’s sophisticated relationship with its state animal. (This being Florida, and as Pittman suggests within the subtitle, there may be additionally a wholesome dose of weirdness sprinkled in, such because the digicam entice that will get photobombed by a man dressed as Bigfoot.) People have been and proceed to be the principle drivers behind the Florida panther’s decline and unsure future. However as Pittman reveals, they’re additionally the explanation the panthers didn’t go the way in which of the passenger pigeon, dodo, and Tasmanian tiger.

Florida panthers are a subspecies of Puma concolor, an enormous cat with greater than 80 frequent names, together with the puma, cougar, or mountain lion. The predators as soon as stalked landscapes from Canada to Argentina, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, however their populations have been lowered to a sliver of their former vary. Immediately, panthers dwelling east of the Mississippi River survive solely in Florida, representing lower than 5 % of their historic vary.

They very practically didn’t make it in Florida, both. European settlers valued panthers for his or her skins and in addition seen them as a menace. Bounties accelerated the killing within the 19th century, and growth through the subsequent century picked up the place the hunters left off, practically wiping the cats off the map.

In 1950, amid warnings that panthers had been going the way in which of different imperiled native species just like the manatee, whooping crane, and ivory-billed woodpecker, Florida started regulating the cat as a “recreation animal,” that means limits may very well be set on the variety of the predators legally killed. Quickly after — realizing that the animals had all however disappeared — the state banned all panther searching. A couple of years after that, the subspecies joined the newly created endangered species record.

Though protected on paper, the panthers confronted new threats within the coming many years, from an airport practically constructed atop their final remaining habitat to all method of bureaucratic corruption, greed, ignorance, and mismanagement. Pittman unspools these near-misses by means of exhaustive analysis and first-hand interviews with the surviving handful of biologists, veterinarians, and professional hunters who can in the end be credited for the cat’s tenuous come-back.

The decades-long rescue effort on the coronary heart of “Cat Story” begins in 1974 when Chris Belden, a younger biologist on the Florida Sport and Freshwater Fish Fee, put collectively a workforce of scientists and trackers to verify that panthers nonetheless even existed. From there, they moved on to the painstaking activity of monitoring and quantifying the animal’s numbers — and figuring out the components behind their collapse.

In 1985, recreation fee officers handed over management of the panther workforce to David Maehr, a biologist who had studied birds and bears, and who had labored for coal corporations, however who had no expertise with panthers. In Pittman’s telling, Maehr appears to have finished extra hurt than good for the species, from cherry choosing knowledge to dismissing an excellent feminine veterinarian’s warnings that inbreeding posed a mortal menace to Florida panthers.

Melody Roelke, the veterinarian, would probably have continued to be ignored, and the Florida panther genetically bottlenecked itself into extinction consequently, had a workforce of out of doors (male) consultants not lastly vindicated her within the late 1980s.

The primary tried repair, a botched captive breeding effort, practically destroyed the species. However a determined, last-ditch “Hail Mary” effort, as Pittman places it — the importation of eight mountain lions from Texas, a carefully associated subspecies — secured the panther’s future. In 1995, two kittens born to one of many imported females and sired by male Florida panthers confirmed not one of the telltale indicators of inbreeding current within the few remaining Florida natives, together with coronary heart murmurs and issues with their reproductive methods. Because the females gave beginning to litter after litter, the kittens grew into adults that “freshened up the gene pool” and gave an important increase to the subspecies’ dwindling inhabitants, Pittman writes.

By this time, Pittman writes, Maehr had stop his job on the recreation fee and change into an affiliate professor who made tens of hundreds of dollars on the facet consulting for builders, utilizing defective, self-produced numbers to justify paving over panther habitat. He was helped alongside by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which green-lit all of the permits he put in entrance of it for years. In the long run, from 1999 to 2005, the company gave its blessing to develop virtually 40,000 acres of panther habitat, in response to Pittman’s evaluation.

All through “Cat Story’s” highs and lows, the message that resonates probably the most is how simply science can get misplaced within the tangle of human ego, motivation, and bias. Given the disheartening realities of how conservation really works on the bottom — of how cash and private achieve so usually trump knowledge and the regulation — it might strike readers as a marvel that any endangered species, not to mention Florida panthers, nonetheless exist in any respect.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 230 grownup panthers survive in Florida at present, and whereas this can be a marked restoration, they’re nonetheless one of the endangered mammals on the planet. The Florida panther’s future isn’t essentially safe. Pittman factors out that the cat stays confined to a single patch of habitat within the southern a part of the state, leaving it weak to illness, fireplace, invasive species, or any variety of environmental or artifical disasters.

In the meantime, roads, which usually declare the lives of panthers that enterprise out of their southerly nook, stop their pure enlargement, whereas growth — now the highest menace to panthers — reveals no indicators of slowing. Greater than 900 individuals on common transfer to Florida every day, and Florida simply authorized three new toll roads that can lower immediately by means of panther habitat.

Pittman ends his guide on a hopeful observe, although, with the beginning of panther kittens for the primary time in many years in an space north of the Caloosahatchee River. It may very well be, a supply tells him, that these kittens and others like them will go on to repopulate the Southeast. However it’s going to take much more than hope, as Pittman makes clear, to safe that future for Florida panthers.

Rachel Love Nuwer is a science journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Occasions, Nationwide Geographic, Scientific American, BBC Future, and elsewhere. She is the creator of “Poached: Contained in the Darkish World of Wildlife Trafficking.”

This text was initially revealed on Undark. Learn the unique article.

Prime picture: Robert Thiemann

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