By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Scott's administration has done little to help that trend. In June 2011, he approved sweeping changes to a long-standing growth management system, making it easier for developers to push into once-protected areas. Now, his Department of Transportation wants to ram the 120-mile Heartland Parkway through the middle of the state, from Polk County to Naples. Another plan calls for a massive interchange at I-75 and Everglades Boulevard, just down the road from a protected panther habitat. More car deaths are inevitable, activists say.
"Panthers evolved to be one of the fastest animals out there. The idea that a car is faster than them just doesn't fit within their hardwiring," says Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
Cars aren't the only deadly threat from sprawl, though. Territorial beefs erupt among the cats as they compete in tighter spaces. Each panther is a loner, preferring 200 miles to itself. When two males cross, it's likely to get ugly. Since 2000, at least 39 panthers have killed each other.
A host of other hazards also endanger the creatures. A wildfire in 2011 killed four cubs, for instance, and another died of mercury poisoning. A few brazen hunters even take shots at the animals. In July, Todd Benfield, a 45-year-old man from Naples, was sentenced to 60 days of house arrest and fined $5,000 for shooting one with a bow.
But those perils aren't preventable, according to experts like Criffield. Instead, they focus on an ultimate goal: establishing three separate populations of at least 240 cats, with many north of the Caloosahatchee River, cutting from Lake Okeechobee across to Fort Myers.
"That's the only way we can expand the population to a point where they can be removed from the endangered species list," Criffield says.
That's easier said than done. There hasn't been a female panther seen north of the Caloosahatchee since 1973. Conservationists are fighting to secure reserves along the river, including 1,270 acres in Glades County purchased in May by the Nature Conservancy.
In the meantime, Criffield and his colleagues keep a close eye on the cats. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, FWC charters a small plane to locate the 20 or so panthers fitted with tracking collars, including FP197.
Criffield has particularly high hopes for the male cat — it's big, young, and strong, the kind of animal that could survive a trek north of the Caloosahatchee. That's why, as the Cessna hums through the air this past July 18, he's so worried by the errant signal from FP197's collar.
After the plane lands at Naples Municipal Airport, Criffield loads up an ATV and heads toward the coordinates. As he rolls through the grass, his stomach drops: He spots the cat's tawny fur, thrown into stark relief against the dense brush.
FP197 is dead.
This time, there are no obvious signs of what killed it. There's no evidence of a bloody fight, no bullet holes, and no mangled flesh from a car accident. Criffield rolls out a tarp and straps the 15th dead panther of 2012 to the back of his ATV. He'll have to ship the corpse to Gainesville for a necropsy to figure out the cause of death.
"It's all scientifically based, and anything we get is data, good or bad," Criffield says, trying to remain objective.
Then his voice wavers. "But yeah, I was bummed to [pull] 197 out of the woods... You remember things about these cats."
That simple, huh? Perhaps it would be more fitting to say "natural selection is a bitch" or something of the sort, but even then I am not sure what you are getting at. Is it necessary for us as human beings in South Florida to kill off what is left of the Panther population on Planet Earth? Are we in direct competition with Panthers for resources? While we should be encouraging urban infill and redevelopment in densely populated areas near the coast, our local government allows for westward expansion leading to more urban sprawl all for the short term gain of developers (which then in turn make sizable donations to incumbents). Nobody in Miami cares.
@suzie I have one simple question for you?
What is more important? Our economic well being(Jobs, Food, Medicine) or a handful of a non-endangered cats?
@Anthonyvop1 @suzie You act like this is a competition. The decision between feeding a family OR helping improve the population of wild cats in florida isn't even a decision that needs to be made. People do both! There are scientists who help animals because thats what they like to do and go to college for. And there are people in government and pedestrians that help starving families everyday. Tell me someone who has had to make that decision and we'll talk. This country and world have A LOT of issues and there are literally hundreds of thousands of people helping to improve things all the time. And when was the last time you fed a starving family anyway?
Anthony you are being stupid. if you were in the place of a florida panthern you would hate the humans for what they have done to its habitat. You are a selfish living being. humans are the bullies of the planet. we kill whatever it takes for us to survive and have no care about the other species. is having a play station really necessary to live? do you not think that the other animals in this world deserve to have a place to sleep and eat instead of us stealing it just for entertainment and not survival? do you not think that they have feelings and wish to live too? every living organism on this planet wishes to survive. the only difference is that we are more advanced then they are. if the poor things could speak, if the poor things could take action, i am sure that we wouldnt be so different. we are lucky to be able to get what we need and to not have to be scared about another animal on this planet. its not the same for them. their lives are in our hands. and we dont even give the slightest sign of interest. its not their fault that we are killing their kind since they do no harm to us. its our own mistakes. i asure you that the human race probably takes up atleast 50% of this world, and the other are crowded between other species. you say that they are not endangered, you are a fool. we are the only ones that are not endangered because we were blessed. and instead of using our blessings to help the planet, we are using it to destroy it. the real question that you are asking is, " is it more important to sacrafice this planet to save ourselves, or share some of our blessings to help the world."
@Anthonyvop1the cats are endangered
@Julez You have no grasp of how the economy works do you? A developer hires workers don't they? Those workers get paid right? They spend there pay in other businesses no? How about building material suppliers? Don't they get paid?
Seriously? have you no grasp of how the market works?
@suzie The Mountain Lion IS NOT endangered. Decades ago they brought it Mountain lions from the west to shore up the Florida Strain. They interbred and the Florida Strain does not exist anymore. Numerous DNA study has found that the sub-species doesn't exist anymore and the Bible of mamal Taxonomy, Mammal Species of the World, does not recognize the Florida Panther as a unique subspecies
They only keep it up for appearances and to pad their budgets.
So again I ask you. What is more important. A non-endangered species of the feeding of a family?
@Anthonyvop1These developers getting to build a new gated community in the middle of nowhere isn't going to help your economic well being.
@Anthonyvop1 Well the Florida Panther is endangered (as the article states in the fifth sentence); up until a few years ago it was "critically endangered" according to the IUCN (the highest risk category). I have no idea what to make of the rest of your comment. I strike it as void for vagueness. I'm done.