Florida Panther Outlook Improves
Panther Population Now More Than 100
LABELLE, FL. -- A paper published in the journal "Science" on Friday focuses on the long-term efforts of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and partner agencies to improve the health of the Florida panther population. Through a process called genetic restoration, scientists have helped increase the population of 20 to 30 animals in the early 1990s to the current population of at least 100.
Genetic restoration involves adding new genetic material into a small, isolated population that has suffered the ill effects of inbreeding. Before genetic restoration, many panthers were diagnosed with heart problems, fertility issues, and low levels of genetic variation. To address these problems, scientists introduced eight female pumas from Texas to breed within the dwindling Florida panther population in 1995.
"We are excited by the success of this project," said Dr. Dave Onorato, FWC biologist. "We now have a larger, healthier population that more closely resembles what we would have expected to find in the once-widespread Florida panther population before it became reduced in numbers and isolated in South Florida."
This project has played an important role in the improvements to the health and size of the panther population in Florida. However, other factors, such as land preservation, wildlife underpasses and cooperative agreements between private landowners and non-governmental organizations also contributed to the population increase and will continue to play an important role in the recovery of panthers.
Genetic restoration of the Florida panther has been a multi-agency effort involving the FWC, the National Cancer Institute, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many non-governmental organizations. These agencies worked with world-renowned experts in conservation genetics and the management of large carnivores to produce the Plan for Genetic Restoration in 1994.
Funding for panther research and management conducted by the FWC comes exclusively from fees collected when Florida residents purchase "Protect the Florida panther" specialty license plates. People wishing to replace a license plate with one of these tags can do so at any tax collector's office.
How to Restore the Florida Panther: Add a Little Texas CougarIntroducing female cougars from Texas has helped the Florida big cats rebound
By David Biello |September 24, 2010
"In the early 1980s and 1990s they were so inbred that they were unhealthy," explains wildlife biologist Dave Onorato of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a co-author of the paper. "Genetic restoration has made for a healthier population and population has increased in size since then."
In fact, using samples from 591 individual Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi) collected since 1981, the scientists traced the bloodlines of the panthers alive today—including the 424 documented panther births since the Texas cougars arrived. The offspring of the original panther population and the imported pumas rapidly grew to as many as 95 adult big cats ranging across Big Cypress National Reserve and other remaining habitats. And this genetic restoration might provide a model for efforts to conserve dwindling big cat populations around the world.
View a slide show of Florida panthers
The scientists also collected their own samples, using houndsmen and their trained bloodhounds (also from Texas) to tree the big cats. But the pumas with Texas lineage proved harder to capture. "The admixed cats, on average, resisted capture more energetically, were more likely not to stay in the first tree that they climbed to avoid the dogs," says geneticist Warren Johnson of the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Md., lead author of the report.
The population growth, of course, was also helped by the protection of some 120,000 hectares of habitat as well as the construction of highway underpasses to cut down on road kill (10 to 20 pumas are killed every year this way, according to Onorato). But, in a sense, the original inbred population of Florida panthers is now gone, replaced by hybrid descendants with genes from Texas and Florida. Only two females from the "canonical" Florida panther population remain, and the purebred Florida males are less likely to win their battles for territory. "As you become an older fellow your chances of winning a bar fight go down," Onorato says, also noting that Texas and Florida puma populations used to swap genes via ranges that covered the entire Southeast only a century ago.
Territorial battles between pumas are becoming more common as the population rebounds but remains confined to a relatively small habitat. "Finding a way for panthers and people to coexist in Florida—and preserving enough good wilderness for panthers in Florida—that's really what's going to help them the most," Onorato says, noting that it might make sense for the pumas to recolonize central Florida—or even beyond. Johnson adds: "There are many places on the east coast where panthers would flourish, and they eventually may naturally repopulate the region."
But given human demands on the panther's hunting grounds for agriculture and development (and on pumas themselves; hunters killed some 800 pumas a year in Montana alone in the late 1990s), the Florida panther remains imperiled. And that means Florida panthers will likely remain in continual need of imported mates. "Unfortunately, it will have to be done again," Onorato says. "It's just a matter of when."
Or, as ecologist Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota puts it in a commentary on the results also published in Science: "Once the entire planet reaches the same state of economic development and urbanization as the United States, wildlife managers all over the world can look forward to carting rare species from one park to another until the end of time."---Blogger Rick chiming in here and hoping for all of us that we somehow find it within our human nature not to reach the point where our wild cousins are unable to taverse across the landscape under their own power---the very goal of re-wilding encompasses the creation of wild land corridors linking large reservoirs of open space---let us work on the Cougar spreading up and down the Appalachians and again across the bottom tier of Southern States linking up with Texas populations of Mountain Lions