More panther habitat in Highlands a possibility
Pallavi Agarwal | Highlands TodaySEBRING - Paul Ebersbach said in his 30 years working at the Avon Park Air Force Range he's seen one panther prowl the woods.
Published: September 15, 2012
Published: September 15, 2012
Another time, a hunter showed pictures of a panther he said he spotted in the 100,000-acre expanse of brush and scrub that comprises the training facility and natural preserve.
Two in 30 years may not be a whole lot, one can argue, but Darrell Land said a trail camera just north of Fisheating Creek, on the other side of Highlands County, spotted a male panther.
"We know there are still panthers in the area," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Panther Team leader.
The state agency that monitors wildlife says the population of Florida panthers is growing large enough to consider expanding the big cat's territory northward from the million-acre refuge in South Florida, south of the Caloosahatchee River.
In the '80s, the panther population had dwindled to about 25. Planned mating has increased panther numbers, roughly estimated from 160 to about 250, but they still remain endangered.
While the females have stuck close to their breeding spots in the swamps and hammocks of South Florida, male panthers periodically cross the Caloosahatchee River and travel widely in Southwest Florida in search of new territories and mates.
Panthers spotted north of the Caloosahatchee are most likely wandering males, although one female with cubs has gone a mile north of the river, Land said.
To protect these panthers on the move and potentially establish suitable habitat in other areas, the commission is looking at potential locations in central Florida, among them the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Managed Area and the bombing range.
"We have to target the heart of where the panthers are, and continue to move forward with good habitat and with underpasses to protect panthers crossing highways," the commission said in a news release.
Land is quick to point out the initiative to either create wildlife corridors or breeding areas north of the river is in its infancy right now.
"We are taking baby steps," he said. "There is no plan, no timeline."
A big part of the puzzle is finding enough room for the big cats to roam.
An adult male needs 200 square miles and may travel 50 miles a day.
In south Florida, they have a million acres of habitat and roaming areas available. In the south part of central Florida, that is a problem. The Fisheating Creek Wildlife Managed Area, for instance, is only 18,272 acres – hardly enough to sustain panthers.
To make any potential panther plan feasible, the state will have to partner with private landowners, said commission spokesman Gary Morse.
In the coming months, the commission will collaborate closely with stakeholders, including private landowners in central Florida, about "what information and resources they need to feel prepared for an increased presence of panthers."
The Lykes Bros.' Vice President of Ranching Joe Collins said they have had "some very preliminary discussions" with the commission.
The 337,000-acre ranch, which straddles Glades and Highlands counties, also runs contiguous to Fisheating Creek.
"We appreciate the commission's approach of being proactive and talking with ranchers about potential concerns and solutions to issues related to expanding the panther population," he added.
Ebersbach said he has not received any official communication from the commission but welcomes the initiative, saying if neighboring property owners commit to conservation it relieves the burden of the bombing range. An increased panther presence might be more interaction with human beings. It might also mean possible danger to livestock. "Some of the largest land ownings in that area are active cattle ranches," Land said, the Tampa Tribune reports. "So far, I haven't sensed any opposition, but there is a concern that having more large predators would impact their bottom line." Incentives to get ranchers to cooperate have yet to be devised, he said. In some programs nationwide, cattlemen can be reimbursed for lost livestock if they provide proof panthers are to blame. Rancher Jim Strickland, also a Florida Cattlemen's Association executive committee member, expressed concerns about what increased panther presence could mean to cattle. "If you're a rancher losing $20,000 a year, then, you are supplying that habitat for the expansion," he said, the Tampa Tribune reports. "There's nothing I like better than a good glass of orange juice in the morning but a panther would rather have a big piece of red meat." Ranchers are aware of the initiative and want a role in planning the panther's migration, he said. "We are coming to table with open eyes and open arms on this," he said. "We supply a huge amount of habitat, but we still have to make a living and pay our taxes to put our children through school." firstname.lastname@example.org (863) 386-5831