Last year, state wildlife biologists said that they had spotted what they believed to be a female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time since 1973, a promising sign for the future of an endangered species that has been cooped up in the state's southwestern region for decades.
But they couldn't be sure of that unless the panther had kittens.
Now they're sure.
Wildlife biologists announced Monday that they've verified the presence of at least two kittens in that same area where they saw the female panther.
"This is good news for Florida panther conservation," said Kipp Frohlich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Until now, we only had evidence of panthers breeding south of the Caloosahatchee. These pictures of a female with kittens indicate there are now panthers breeding north of the river."
Panthers, Florida's official state animal, once ranged across all the southeastern states. But by the 1970s the remnants of that population were found only in what was left of the wilderness in southwest Florida. The population had dropped to as few as 20 or 30, with many suffering from genetic defects due to inbreeding.
An unprecedented experiment in 1995 brought in eight female cougars from Texas — a close cousin of the Florida panther — to refresh the gene pool. As a result, more panthers survived into adulthood, and now the population is estimated to be nearing about 200.
Yet even as the population grew, the panthers lost habitat to rampant development and mining, squeezing them into a smaller space. They needed new habitat.
The official federal plan for saving the panther says that they need to live in more places other than just their dwindling spaces in southwest Florida. To be saved from extinction, they need at least two other large colonies, either in or out of Florida.
And federal officials wanted the panthers to find their way to those new colonies themselves.
Male panthers, which need more room to roam than the females, began crossing the Caloosahatchee River and venturing north, one even making it as far as Georgia. But not the females.
For decades, "the Caloosahatchee River has appeared to be a major obstacle to northward movement of female panthers," said the wildlife commission's panther team leader Darrell Land. "This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally."
Biologists have used motion-sensitive trail cameras to monitor panther movements north of the Caloosahatchee. In 2015, they collected a photo of what appeared to be a female panther in the state-owned Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County. They deployed additional cameras in the summer of 2016, and captured more images of what they believed to be a female panther.
"Early this year, the cameras captured images of a female that appeared to be nursing," Land said.
Wildlife commission chairman Brian Yablonski called it "a major milestone on the road to recovery for the Florida panther."
However, as always with panthers, the discovery raises questions about the ramifications for private landowners nearby, particularly ranchers.
Hungry panthers, unable to find enough deer and hogs to satisfy their appetite, have begun targeting calves on ranches south of the Caloosahatchee. Government officials and environmental groups have been working to find a way to compensate the ranchers so they won't become enemies of the panther.
Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promised his agency will be "working with landowners to make panthers and private land ownership compatible."
To Tampa nature photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who has spearheaded a drive to create a statewide "Florida Wildlife Corridor," the discovery of the kittens is "a call to action to invest in land protection so the panthers can continue their pathway northward."
Babcock Ranch was a stop along the corridor path when Ward and like-minded colleagues traveled the length of the Florida peninsula marking how undeveloped land could link together.
"I've seen firsthand that there is plenty of good panther habitat throughout the Florida peninsula and beyond," he said. If the state can ensure rural ranchland stays undeveloped, then a wildlife corridor "will be the path of the panther."
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.