Out of Office: On the Prowl for Panthers in South Florida

On a recent trip to South Florida, I was treated to an abundance of wildlife sightings: pelicans, geckos, bald eagles, dolphins, and too many alligators to count. But, despite the numerous signs along U.S. Route 41 warning of panther crossings, I never caught a glimpse of the mysterious tawny and brown cat.

A tour of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge revealed the reason why. The Florida panther is one of the most endangered mammals in the country. A population of only 100-160 adults in southern Florida is all that remains of the species that once roamed most of the southeastern U.S.

The refuge, located 20 miles east of Naples, has two hiking trails, a 1.3-mile unimproved trail and a .3-mile trail that is wheelchair accessible. I hiked the longer trail guided by former refuge manager Jim Krakowski, who gave me the scoop on Florida panthers.

An adult male panther can weigh between 130 and 160 pounds with an average length of 6-8 feet. Females weigh between 70 and 100 pounds and are 5-7 feet long.

Panthers need lots of room. A male’s territory can cover 200 square miles; a female needs 80 square miles. They can easily travel 20 miles in a day. The refuge covers 26,605 acres (about 42 square miles). It is the core of several home ranges and also a travel corridor for panthers moving between Big Cypress National Preserve to the east and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Picayune Strand State Forest to the south. At any time 5-11 adult panthers can be on the refuge.

Although most pictures of panthers show them in trees, the big cats spend the vast majority of their time on the ground. The panther is so elusive that one of the rare times they are seen by humans is when they are trying to escape tracking dogs by running up a tree. The dogs help scientists temporarily capture panthers and fit them with radio collars. The National Park Service usually tracks about 30 of the animals at any given time.

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Admission to the refuge is free, but only the trails are open to the public. You’ll likely see some of the area’s 126 bird species, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, or 22 mammals, including white-tailed deer (the panthers’ favorite food) and wild turkey. Some 27 types of native orchids are found on the refuge, along with lots of other indigenous plants. Black bears also live in the park, but usually elude visitors.

If you visit, remember what Jim told me when we finished our hike, “We didn’t see any panthers, but that doesn’t mean a panther didn’t see us.” These truly wild animals are doing their best to adapt to their human neighbors. The refuge is one example of how humans can coexist with them.

Photo of a Florida panther from a trail camera by Larry Richardson, USFWS.

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