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Conserving the Florida Panther

Introduction

During the late 1800s hunting the Florida panther, or Puma Concolor coryi, was a common activity ("Florida Panther" 2019). It was a time of human population growth, settlement, urbanization, and changing landscapes. The Florida panther species has experienced drastic environmental changes in their environment due to humans. A history of habitat loss, fragmentation, degradation, and a loss of genetic diversity has led them to be listed as an endangered species in 1967 ("Florida Panther" 2019). An abundance of factors contributes to habitat changes and the effects of it by negatively influencing the conservation status of the Florida panther. In order to further conserve this species, it is important to understand the impact humans have on their habitat. Negative human influence on panther habitat ranges has led to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation, and health issues from inbreeding. All of these consequences are primary reasons why the Florida panther is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.


Status

For a species to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, they must relate to these five factors: destruction or modification of habit range, over-usage of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, educational purposes, facing disease or predation, deficient current regulation systems, and other threatening natural or human-made factors ("Listing Species Under The Endangered Species Act | NOAA Fisheries" 2019). Though they are listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act, they are not listed on the IUCN Red List. Each agency has their own definitions of endangered/threatened as well as varying criteria to be listed. In the case for Puma Concolor coryi, they are not listed on the IUCN Red List because that agency is stricter on what species are listed; they only list species that are of highest concern (Harris et al. 2011). So, for the IUCN, the Florida panther is not considered a big concern like it is for the Endangered Species Act.


Habitat Changes

As previously introduced, changes to Florida panther habitats has led their listing on the endangered species list. The three types of habitat change, all of which harm panther populations. These are habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. These are important to understand because they are the main reasons for their endangered status and the inbreeding it causes leads to health complications.


Increased human settlement and encroachment throughout time has led to extreme habitat loss for the Florida panther. The majority of Florida panther populations were decimated by hunting before the 1900’s due to high human-wildlife conflict and wildlife-livestock interactions that urged settlers to kill panthers (Howard 2002). Being a large carnivore, fear is installed into people in nearby areas, which increases the stress and desire to kill the panthers. Less habitat means there is a smaller breeding area, fewer resources (like vegetation to hide in during the day), and less prey to hunt. All of these factors of habitat loss reinforce natural selection. On a related note, inbreeding (and all the issues that go with it, like a loss of genetic diversity) is more likely to be present in the population since it’s so small.


Unlike habitat loss, habitat fragmentation is the distinct separation of habitats into smaller patches. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service signifies that Florida Panthers experience habitat fragmentation in two primary ways: highways and urbanization. An increase in highway construction is a threat to panther habitat because trees, woodlands, and wetlands are split apart to make room for highways. The roads separate critical habitat that the panthers rely on for resources, mates, and food. Motivated panthers will attempt to cross the highways to get to other habitat patches, but unfortunately there are many panther-vehicular collisions. Just like highways, urbanization threatens panther habitats. Humans expand cities and design them in sections. Urbanization has the same impact as highway systems when it comes to habitat fragmentation, but urbanization also increases the risk for human-panther conflict. Continued fragmentation of panther habitat over many generations can lead to a speciation event, which will lower genetic diversity within panther populations.


Besides habitat loss and fragmentation, the remaining panther habitats are experiencing degradation, which is when critical habitat resources become unreliable and poor. Degradation not only affects the panthers, but other species that use that same habitat and resources. For example, white tailed deer are also negatively impacted by the poor resources, so if their numbers decline, the panthers will have less to eat which will further lessen their numbers. It’s a trophic cascade. To illustrate, deer densities in Water Conservation Areas over a three-year period were studied, and there was a 67% decrease in the deer population (these Water Conservation Areas were classified as such due to deep water levels and trees being submerged in water). This study shows that a degraded habitat (in this case high water levels affecting resources) affects many species, like white tailed deer that the panther’s prey on.


Genetic Issues

The three forms of habitat change that have impacted panther populations has unfortunately led them to resort to inbreeding, which causes a loss of genetic diversity within populations and serious health issues for individuals. Since the panthers have such low numbers, they often breed with relatives, which can cause heart murmurs, low testicular and semen volumes, poor semen motility, high percentages of abnormal sperm, a crooked end of their tail, irregular white flecking on the head, neck, and shoulders of offspring. An example of an effort done to boost the number of panthers and combat genetic issues from inbreeding is when Texas pumas were introduced to Southern Florida. These two species mated and over generations, inbreeding was less common and genetic issues are less likely to appear in offspring.


Recovery Plans

Unlike many other species listed as threatened or endangered, the Florida panther has a very extensive plan for their recovery. The majority of their recovery plan expands on the three types of habitat change threatening the panthers. One key goal for this species is to make sure that the prey of the panthers is looked after and supported if needed in the public land that includes panther habitats. A lot of panther habitat is now considered public land because of the high rates of urbanization, so it is important that we consider this goal in their recovery plan. This goal summarizes that public lands should encompass the restoration and maintenance of the natural habitat. This can be done by managing fire and invasive plant control, regulate vehicle off-roading, maintain and regulate hydrologic quality and quantity, and have stricter regulations on hunting. These actions will target both the panthers and their prey.


The recovery plan expands on the goal to manage panther habitat in public lands by listing more specific methods and techniques on how this can be done. For example, to combat habitat fragmentation, habitat can be restored in primary, secondary, and dispersal zones. It’s critical to restore these areas because it improves the dispersal ranges of the panthers, which broadens mating opportunities and increases genetic diversity. One way of doing this is to look after and conserve current wildlife corridors that aid with fragmentation. Of course, in order to restore habitat, a significant amount of funds is needed. The recovery plan briefs on this by stating that there needs to be an increase in the development and expansion of funding the restoration of panther habitat. This can be done through the work of nonprofits, governmental agencies, and fundraising.


Conclusion

Just like polar bears and orangutans, the Florida panther is a flagship species, but with a main focus for the state of Florida. To support the conservation and continued preservation of this species for future generations, public support of non-profit organizations, wildlife research, or any other science-based group that aims to protect the Florida panthers by addressing the causes of their endangered status, like the three types of habitat change they face, will benefit their recovery. It’s equally important to understand that the Florida panther has an important role in ecosystems as they are a top carnivore and limiting negative stigma about them can help because that’s what led to their over-exploitation in the early 1900s. In all, humans have played a significant role in the conservation status of the Florida Panther. Human actions have led to extreme habitat change in the forms of fragmentation, degradation, and loss. By working on the goals listed in their recovery plan, the leading threats facing panther populations can be significantly decreased and panther populations can be preserved for generations to come.





Bibliography


Howard, Craig. 2002. "Puma Concolor Coryi (Florida Panther)". Animal Diversity Web. https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Puma_concolor_coryi/.


Harris, J. Berton C., J. Leighton Reid, Brett R. Scheffers, Thomas C. Wanger, Navjot S. Sodhi, Damien A. Fordham, and Barry W. Brook. 2011. "Conserving Imperiled Species: A Comparison Of The IUCN Red List And U.S. Endangered Species Act". Biologicaldiversity.Org. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/endangered_species_act/pdfs/Harris_et_al_2011_ESA_and_IUCN.pdf.


"Florida Panther (Puma (=Felis) Concolor Coryi)". 2019. Ecos.Fws.Gov. Accessed November 24. https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp0/profile/speciesProfile;jsessionid=B796956A800CCBFF2C984B49537CFBDF?spcode=A008.


"Florida Panther". 2019. Wildlife And Wild Lands. https://esa.npca.org/florida-panther/.


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