Living with The Florida Panther

A new alliance between urban planning and the big cat

The Florida Panther’s Case

On the outskirts of Naples, West Florida, a woman waits beside her car parked on the shoulder of I-75, once known, in its two-lane version, as Alligator Alley. On either side of the highway looms the thick vegetation of several preserves: the National Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Park, Picayune Strand State Forest, and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Forest. Not far off, southward, is the Everglades National Park, principal haven to the panther, elected Florida’s state symbol in 1982. A policeman stops to offer the woman assistance. “I’m waiting for the panther to go by,” she says, pointing at a yellow diamond-shaped road sign drawn with a panther’s silhouette ahead of her car. The anecdote, reported by an amused park ranger, does not specify whether the officer explained that the sign did not guarantee the feline’s appearance.

The story does, however, suggest a persistent disconnection between the general public and wilderness, even as the latter struggles to exist. This Walt Disney-like perception that a wild and temperamentally elusive carnivore may be beckoned at will by a road sign (or a button?), may perhaps be forgiven in a state where the lack of transitional or buffer zones between swaths of preserved nature and developed areas leads, in conservationist terms, to ‘the edge effect risk’. In such a discontinuous environment, one can imagine how the sudden manifestation of a panther, compressed into unexpected places, may enter the human psyche as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, not as an ordinary component of a regional ecosystem.

What was, in fact, this woman’s chance of seeing a panther pass by?

Sign for Florida Panther crossing outside of Naples, FL © Stephanie V Sears

By the 1980s, the Florida panther population was reduced to some twenty to thirty individuals. Physical signs of inbreeding appeared in kinked tails, cowlicks, cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) and a low fertility rate caused by a genetic cul-de-sac or ‘bottle-neck' in the Everglades which the small group of survivors could not escape. This outcome was worsened by chemical pollution (agricultural pesticides, herbicides, mercury absorption) and increasing road collisions.

Since 2000 the Florida Panther subspecies, _Puma concolor coryi_, has been contested as such by DNA research and included in one subspecies _Puma concolor couguar_, spanning from the north of Nicaragua to throughout North America (See - DNA and the origin of the North American puma/Dr. Melanie Culver/Wildcat News/December2005). Between 1957-1967, the Everglades panther bred with escaped or released South American individuals. Between 1988 and 1989, intentional introduction of eight Texas female puma, then called _Puma concolor stanleyensis_, took place. They subsequently mated with Florida panthers. The three surviving Texan individuals were removed at the end of a trial period, having boosted fertility of the Floridian population. The latter now stands at 120 to 230 individuals, according to different estimates and degrees of optimism. In 1993, in order to determine how panthers might do in another region, nineteen sterilized Texas male puma were released in northern Florida’s Osceola National Forest and Pin Hook Swamp. Two were shot, three killed on highways, one snared and others recaptured. One, inadequately sterilized, had mated, resulting in the birth of cubs.

The panther enthusiast on I-75 had therefore a better chance to see one, even though conditions remain far from ideal. Sadly, one way to evaluate population growth is by observing a greater incidence of road accidents involving panthers, which indicates the number of individuals that have been squeezed out of available territory. Some twenty-four cats were killed on Florida roads in 2018, according to the senior representative of the Non- Governmental Organization Defenders office in Florida. In Collier County, US 41, which goes through the Everglades Park and SR 29, which joins I-75 to US 41, are famously fatal to roaming panthers. Since 1993, however, sixty underpasses in that area and the attendant fencing to help direct animals to the crossings, have reduced such collisions by 90%. Underpasses are favored, when possible, over bridges because cheaper to install and more natural-looking in appearance to fauna; also considered more effective than RADs (Roadside Animal Detection System), (flashing light beams triggered by animals). One goal is that such infrastructures should systematically be included in road construction/restoration budgets. From a less concrete but no less important point of view, these set-ups might encourage a new mentality towards nature’s denizens, placing human and wildlife interests on a more equal and interconnected plane.

Conservationists aim for a sustainable Florida panther population of 240 individuals divided into three groups, distributed in different parts of the state where they may have a chance to expand to neighboring states once part of the feline’s historic range. This range was stymied after the arrival of the first Europeans in the sixteenth century. Wilderness was gradually converted to farmland and bounties offered to kill the cat (for economic reasons more than for bodily safety). The big cat’s vital space is today reduced to 5% of its normal size and in dire need of re-expansion and protection. The greatest danger to the cat’s survival stems from increasing human presence (an estimated 1000 new residents per day) and the corresponding agricultural and urban development. Even though the panther has no longer been hunted in Florida since 1958 and has been on the endangered species list since 1973, anthropocentric forces continue to strong-arm nature, leaving it in the midst of a fierce rift between two conflicting landscapes: a paramount urban/suburban one and a shrinking natural/semi-natural one.

The Case for an Alliance between New Urbanism and Nature Conservation

On Florida’s southwest coast (hub of the panther’s survival) the urban profile of Naples is certainly lower and less rambunctious than the fortified coastline of Fort Lauderdale or Miami marked by environmental insouciance and the luxurious bluster of a 1960’s James Bond film. Nonetheless, it has its own pernicious brand of urban sprawl: a marquetry of golf courses ( 1250 courses throughout the state), insipid shopping strips and the artificial Edens of rigorously manicured gated communities. Protected from the uncertainties of an uncurbed nature, such havens surround themselves with the inevitable warp and weft of roads that support and perpetuate a wasteful use of land. This lifestyle is epitomized by ‘The Villages’ development, northwest of Orlando, designed for people who appear to prefer age-discriminating, retirement ghettos to the real world.

The opposite end of Florida’s landscape spectrum can be found off US 41. Here, despite regular speed limit signs reminding drivers of the presence of wildlife, cars predictably accelerate on long straight stretches, proving, alas, that even in a National Park, signs cannot substitute for bridges or under-passes to decrease car/animal collisions. A situation that a park ranger met on the way, sums up with a fatalistic shrug: "They will never learn”.

Vulture drying wings in The Loop, Florida © Stephanie V Sears

After passing the compactor redoing the unpaved surface, the Loop, off US 41, offers, by contrast, a slow and solitary drive. I bump along ‘at my own risk’ into a Florida of pre- nineteenth century cracker ranchers and sugar and cotton planters, an aboriginal time of fewer humans and far more cats prowling through the green dusk of cabbage palms, of Tupelo and cypress woods steeped in shallow water laced with macrophytes. White Ibis and herons, in heraldic profiles, stab at fish, while black vultures, caped in outstretched wings like Draculas, stare down from branches barbate with epiphytic plants. In this antediluvian beauty, the invisible glide of the panther seems not only plausible but a must. I savor the experience like a castaway sipping her last drops of water.

I can only imagine the surprise and fright of a panther, suddenly faced with a roaring highway, after wandering through this reduced yet idyllic environment. For like others, this protected area is not immune, in its self-regulating patterns, to the effects of man’s infrastructures in the peripheral regions. Even miles away, the natural flow of head waters, a main concern to ecologists, needs protection so that the downstream will remain pristine. As well, the purity of the water must be protected from chemical infiltrations.

Nonetheless, Florida statistics show a grim upward struggle to save nature: a 53.8% increase of urban areas; 5000 additional square miles, between 1980 and 2003, subjected to urban or agricultural development; a fast population growth rate between 1850-2000: population went from 87,000 to 17 million It seems like an unavoidable progression towards increased land fragmentation, further aggravated by a dramatic funding decrease for land acquisition in the ‘Florida Forever’ budget which was reduced to 11 million dollars in 2009 from 314 million dollars received over the period 1990 to 2008.

Yet conservationists may have found a way out, through a durable alliance with a new urbanist movement averse to urban sprawl, and determined to recreate and reinforce ‘green flow’ throughout the state.

In 1995 the government endorsed the concept of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN), created in the wake of Florida’s Wildlife Corridor, a continuous green passageway north-south, east-west, still in the making. The project moved to the field scouting stage from 2012 to 2015. By thinking like a wandering panther (or any other large mammal) a group of conservationists identified those areas that could best connect core areas by way of dispersal corridors. These passageways vary in width between some nine miles to as little as 0.6 mile according to opportunity and distance. The map of this green network resembles an irregular macramé winding its way around the many obstacles of urban development. The plan to protect 300, 000 acres by 2020 requires collaboration between federal, state and private land ownership. Overall, Identified '’opportunity land’ adds up to 6.3 million acres, and should supplement the already protected 9.5 million acres, in such a way as to complete the wild-ways.

For April Olson, of the NGO Conservancy in Collier County, the relationship between land preservation and urbanization, traditionally a conflicting one, entails a necessary collaboration between development and conservation towards mutual benefit. Statistics, like the one showing that 11% of private forests will have been converted to housing by 2030, are the kind of sinister forecast that provides a key argument in favor of this approach. The Conservancy hopes to replace a reactive, after the fact conservation, disparaged at length in the book ‘Green Infrastructure’ (Green Infrastructure/:linking landscapes and communities/Mark A. Benedict, Edward T. McMahon/2006), with a proactive plan, fully integrated into the overall socio-economic fabric of a region, state, and ultimately, country.

Yet the Picayune Strand Restoration plan, just north of US 41, is one of those well-orchestrated reactive efforts that is still needed to restore a nature previously damaged by poor urbanism. Revitalization of this area involves removing non-indigenous plants, 260 miles of road, and filling in forty-eight miles of canal to reestablish the water’s natural sheet flow. These changes allow the panther to move north from the Everglades Park, where the wild-ways allow expansion of the living space of a growing panther population. In 2019 the project will near completion with the installation of the last planned water regulating pump station and the filling in of another canal.

The Conservancy’s main purpose is to ensure, through guidance and monitoring, that programs like that of the Rural Land Stewardship Area (RLSA), aimed at preserving valuable rural land in Collier County by avoiding sprawl development, meet their goals. THE RLSA program entails supervising a system of stewardship and credits in which private owners/developers may acquire credits by keeping certain ecologically strategic areas free of development. Credits can then be applied to developing parts of their land that are less critical to conservation. Such a system implies a densification or clustering of urban planning, as opposed to a looser, suburban, checkerboard pattern. The Conservancy has recently noted insufficiencies in the RLSA policies and written recommendations for change to avoid inconsistencies that would further put the environment at risk. As revealed by the Conservancy’s pie diagrams for the period 2002-2007, the percentage rating initially agreed upon in the use of land changed in a reality where loopholes or interpretations resulted in a significantly greater share of developed land - 47% developed instead of 10% (Conservancy of SW Florida RLSA graphs).

Alligator sunning himself in Big Cypress National Preserve © Stephanie V Sears

Concentrated development has become the trademark of such urban planning firms as Dover Kohl & Partners. Through urban clustering, undeveloped land not only becomes added conservation space serving to connect formal wildlife conservation areas, but offers a more communal way of living. Multi-use urbanism promotes a more congenial, aesthetic and practical concentration of people and services, reducing the dependence on cars, and turning saved green tracts into a shared asset. Looking ahead, one can only hope that planning inventiveness will keep up with human population growth and the increasing complexity of this urban and green jigsaw puzzle.

Despite a remaining old guard faithful to the typical Floridian urban sprawl landscape, a majority of state residents, according to Victor Dover (Dover Kohl and Partners), want solutions to traffic jams, expensive commute living, and the rapid loss of nature. Even so, the demand for a radical change in the urban landscape is, in his opinion, insufficient and too often replaced by a certain laisser-faire stuck in the comfort, if relative, of a status-quo protracted by land developers, real-estate owners and road engineers.

Is there behind this suggested apathy, a fear of sharing land on a regular basis with large wildlife? After all, until now, efforts to adapt to a new landscape have largely been made by animals. Victor Dover suspects that the possible fear factor may increase towards the fringe of urbanized areas or exurbs, where encounters are most likely. Yet, will such a likelihood remain unchanged as the more central urban landscape becomes greener? Or, will it spread to core urban areas as the big cat is given the opportunity to reach those areas through new verdant connections? Other cities and suburbs in the US have already been accidentally visited by transient panthers, promptly made the villains for their intrusion, as depicted in David Baron’s book, ‘The Beast in the Garden’.

DPZ, another urban planning and architectural firm bent on reforming the Florida urban scene, is a proponent of creating, or/and accentuating a gradual and continuous green linkage from urban core to rural areas, based on the Transect Theory. This system incorporates vegetation to urbanized zones, densifying it by planned degrees towards the outskirts, and foreseeing and superintending future urban growth. This proposed urban transformation, will, according to Galina Tachieva of DPZ, best be adopted by the public through gradual rather than through sudden change.

Projects like the Sun Rail already in use in Seminole, Volusia and Orange counties, and expanding to Osceola County, aim for a new urban landscape in which public transportation becomes a main means of local and regional travel, complemented by walking and bicycling. Other related projects still only punctuate the Florida landscape, at what Galina Tachieva calls the ‘pocket stage’. Such small, environmentally savvy towns as Seaside, Haile, Celebration Villages, feature storm water collecting squares, reduced impervious surfaces and smaller parking lots, unpaved back alleys shared with wildlife. This last aspect promises considerable potential for environmental re-enchantment. In association with conservation efforts, such pockets reestablish or reinvent the relationship between human society and nature, in a more live and let live proximity. Ideally, these ‘nodes’ of new urbanism and the green ways between them will multiply. Clever adaptations to urban life, such as replacing lawns with produce cultivation, recycling golf courses into re-natured areas, building rain gardens that provide run off, systematically installing solar energy panels and reducing land fragmentation may become the standard way.

The Babcock Ranch near Fort Myers promotes that standard with a more economical use of land and a full reliance on solar energy. Eighty per cent of undeveloped land, (equal to 91,000 acres), is sold back to the state for preservation, with 18, 000 acres remaining for the construction of 19,500 houses for 50, 000 people, over a period of twenty-five years.

Looking into the Future

How far and fast is the pendulum of this environmentally friendly urbanism swinging? How successfully is it normalizing the view that humans can and must share the environment with wildlife? Tom Hoctor, Director of the Center for Landscape Conservation and Planning at the University of Florida, says that, though urban sprawl still jeopardizes natural open spaces, surveys show that 75% of Florida voters express no fear of the panther’s presence among them. To the contrary, they favor the constitutional amendment protecting their state symbol (and even though, according to conservation groups, the amendment is not entirely honored by the state).

The news in 2017, that two females had mated north of the Caloosahatchee River - the crucible of the Florida panther’s expansion – proved not only the animal’s resilience, but also that, so far, protection and land conservation is headed in the right direction. It was the kind of news that might lead to self-scrutiny and shame, in consideration of all the land that for decades has been sacrificed to bloated urbanization. It also raised the fundamental question: can the Florida panther remain truly wild? The plan to reconstitute a thriving panther population in a densely urbanized state requires indeed foreseeing the increased risk of human/cat encounters and the risk of animal habituation to man.

Despite their gift for elusiveness and adaptability, big cats need a lot of land to remain wild. Dan Slone of Vertical Vision, legal consultant for new urban planning, no longer believes that putting land aside for wildlife to ensure its survival will suffice. He believes that sustained panther presence must be integrated into a reformed urban landscape as a regular, if transient, feature, at least in suburbs. He attempts therefore to convince Florida residents that one can live safely in an urban setting that is porous to large wildlife. He foresees an intricately organized landscape that includes both humans and a wide biodiversity, in which technology plays a central role to keep species safe from each other. Some such technology already exists: window panes that birds do not crash into, animal friendly lighting, reduced city noise, pesticides replaced by bug- resistant vegetation. His work strives to change relevant legislation to reach that goal, and predicts for the near future a security system that will monitor the movement of large animals passing through or near residential areas. Cities will no longer be obstacles to transient wildlife but stepping stones from and to wild-ways, without risk to humans.

Projected sixty years in the future, the massive 133, 000-acre Mormon-owned Deseret Ranch development plan, northeast of Osceola County, proposes to accommodate 500, 000 residents. To some environmental consultants, it is unclear what direction the project will take: whether it will comply with or defy the state’s environmental concerns. It has the potential to wreak terrible havoc on wildlife, or to follow the smart standards of new urbanism that will reinforce the wild-ways network. For Karina Veaudry, landscape architect at The Preservation of Native Plant Society, the ecological assessment of this vast tract of land, endorsed by the County, has intentionally concealed or diminished the land’s real ecological value. She is not alone in thinking so. Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Florida and her own organization teamed up to send the Department of Community Affairs a second assessment, which was found, by peer review, to be more ecologically sound. The Deseret development plan has proposed 19,000 acres, 14.28% of 133,000 acres, to be set aside for conservation. Yet Karina Veaudry is suspicious that the real conservation value of this land has not been established and that the area does not appear in the final plan to be officially reserved for conservation. There is no guarantee, she warns, that with the passing of six decades, the plan’s terms won’t be altered to serve hidden interests, or to yield to population pressure.

National Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, FL ©Stephanie V Sears

Rewilding the Atlantic seaboard

Let us, however, anticipate that Florida’s wild-ways network will be satisfactorily completed, and that our panther will be able to make it to Georgia’s 519,880-acre Okefenokee Swamp area via the Pin Hook Swamp that bridges the two states; and/or west, to Alabama’s southeastern 80, 000-acre Conecuh National Forest. What then? Will states, where panthers have been extirpated, welcome their return to their territory? According to Ron Sutherland, Chief Scientist at Wildlands Network, Georgia’s US Fish and Wildlife Service shows little enthusiasm for the reintroduction of the panther. If Alabama shares that lack of enthusiasm the panther’s territorial expansion may then be hampered. Cats in the ‘wrong place’ usually end up dead, one way or the other. It would mean that the Florida panther will again be trapped, only this time within the wider boundaries of the state of Florida.

In 2001, the ‘Southeastern Ecological Framework’, presented by Geo Plan Center (University of Florida) for the panther’s expansion, boldly included Mississippi, South and North Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In 2015, the Eastern Wild Way Network proposed to reconnect the Gulf of Mexico to Eastern Canada. Such a corridor would offer the panther much better odds of survival and the means to avoid people, and the opportunity to mate with mountain lions from other parts of the country. ( Five small cougar populations east of the Rockies were found in southern Saskatchewan, eastern Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota). Mountains lions have, increasingly, been traveling east from the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. At this point, conservationists dare not guess which, of the western or Florida cougar, might re-settle the Atlantic seaboard first. Core areas listed by Wildlands Network, that would allow the big cat to travel north and south by way of an eastern corridor, are in sequential order, and from a Florida panther’s point of view : the Everglades for starting post, the southeastern coastal plain, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cumberland Plateau, Shenandoah National Park, Monongahela National Forest, Pennsylvania Wilds, Catskill Park, Adirondacks, Green Mountains, New Hampshire White Mountains, Northern Maine, into Quebec by way of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Gaspesie and Forillon National Parks. To achieve this wild way, ‘The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act’ was presented in 2018 by Virginia Congressman Don Beyer and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and encouraged by such advocates as Cougar Rewilding Foundation. The practical benefits of having mountain lions return to the Atlantic seaboard would include the reduction of the white-tailed deer population numbering 30 million ( a cougar can eat up to fifty deer a year) and the resulting restoration of damaged forests and grasslands.

For some of us, however, the intangible benefits of the large cat’s return to areas once his, would far outshine those tangible ones. In ‘Hope for animals and their world’ ( 2009), Jane Goodall says as much: ’…the natural world has another value that cannot be expressed in materialistic terms.’

Inevitably, as writes the French explorer, Sylvain Tesson, in ‘Dans les Forests de Siberie’ those benefits will continue to be perceived anthropocentrically. Yet, he comments, if we can achieve, ‘ …..a reconciliation between the archaic and the futuristic’ - in other words, an alliance between that ancient thrill felt at the heart of wild spaces and the convenience of a sophisticated technology - a more seamless relationship with nature could be the outcome, and smart technologies could transform man’s rapport to nature from defensive to synergetic.

The question remains of what sort of wilderness will survive. In David Quammen’s pessimistic prediction in Monster of God, large wild predators will be gone by 2150. Such a dire report, if accurate, foretells a severe and perhaps fatal blow to our planet. Statistical forecasts on human population growth compel us to ask ourselves: without controlling our own human population, can we save self-willed landscapes and their most charismatic inhabitants? Or will large wild animals survive in a fully managed and no longer truly wild environment?

Florida’s efforts to preserve a healthy panther population, despite difficult odds, will be a gauge by which to measure our human capacity to sustainably share land with wildlife. This sharing will only have value if it preserves the integrity of an animal’s wild nature and the intrinsic excitement that true wildness transmits to our landscapes and to our imagination.

Further reading

  • Hope for Animals and Their World/Jane Goodall/2009
  • Green Infrastructure/Mark A .Benedict/2006
  • Monster of God/David Quammen/2003
  • The Beast in the Garden/David Baron/2004
  • Dans les forets de Siberie/Sylvain Tesson/2011
  • Heart of a Lion/ William Stolzenburg/2016
  • How Wild Animals are Hacking Life in the City/ National Geographic/April 2016
  • How Highway Underpasses are Saving Panthers in Florida?Melissa Gaskill/Mental Floss/August 2014
  • Everyone is Moving to Florida/Michael Light/Census 2018

Everglades National Park, a typical FL Panther landscape ©Stephanie V Sears