500 FEET ABOVE THE BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE — Biologist Darrell Land holds his left hand out flat, as if he's playing paper in a rock-paper-scissors game, then tilts it to the right. Pilot Don Graham banks the Cessna Skyhawk at a 45-degree angle and begins circling a clump of cypress trees.
As the plane circles, Land, 58, listens on his headphones for the radio signal that tells him where in those trees a Florida panther is hiding. Once he's located the endangered cat, he signals to Graham to level off. As Land types the data into his laptop, they zoom off to search for the next target.
For 36 years, this has been the main way biologists have studied Florida's elusive state animal, a technique Land jokingly calls "collar and foller": A pack of hounds trees a panther, then biologists shoot it with a tranquilizer dart, strap a collar that's attached to a transmitter, then turn the cat loose and fly around three days a week checking for signals.
But the annual ritual of capturing big cats to put radio collars on them may at last be at an end.
"We may just choose not to have a panther capture season this year," Land said after the 90-minute flight ended in Naples. He pointed out how stressful the captures can be for the panthers.
"Why go molest the animals if you don't need to?" said Land, the panther team leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They would probably prefer not to be chased up a tree by dogs, shot in the butt, go into a drug-induced coma, fall out of a tree and wake up with bling."
The collars have helped scientists learn a lot about panthers, he said, but now there are better ways to study them — for instance, using "trap cameras," triggered by the motion of passing animals. They capture images day or night, while radio collars can be checked only during the day.
Future research may require collaring a handful of panthers from time to time, Land said, but the need for doing a full-scale capture every year no longer exists.
At least one panther expert disagrees. Biologist Deborah Jansen was on the very first state-sponsored panther hunt in 1981 and has been studying them ever since. She still sees value in continuing the captures for both scientific study and managing the population.
"I'm still a proponent of the collaring," she said.
Panthers have been wearing radio collars for so long that it's part of Florida lore. In the Carl Hiaasen novel Native Tongue, ex-governor-turned-vigilante Skink turns up wearing one. Skink says he took it off a dead panther, then arranged payback for the trucker who killed it.
If biologists did stop chasing down panthers with dogs, though, that news would please one of Florida's legendary figures: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
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When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the list of animals covered included the Florida panther. Some state officials scoffed, sure it was extinct.
The World Wildlife Fund hired a Texas tracking expert named Roy McBride to bring his pack of dogs to Florida and find out. McBride discovered one scrawny female near Lake Okeechobee and spotted enough signs in the landscape to convince him that it wasn't alone.
A state biologist named Chris Belden was assigned to try to learn as much as possible about the elusive panther. In 1981, he got permission to catch two cats and put radio collars on them and enlisted McBride's help.
The Texan's dogs treed a panther and he shot it with a tranquilizer dart. But the panther wouldn't fall, so Belden climbed up to retrieve it. They both fell.
"No one knows who hit the ground first — me or the panther," Belden wrote later. But they got the collar attached before the panther woke up.
In two years, Belden's team caught seven panthers and attached collars. Belden said biologists learned more about panthers in just 24 months than they had learned in the previous 50 years. They learned how far they moved in a night and what kind of habitat they preferred, among other things.
Then, during the first capture of 1983, tragedy struck.
Belden was leading a team that included McBride and Jansen. After the dogs treed a panther, the tranquilizer dart the biologists fired hit the cat's femoral artery, delivering the dosage too fast. The panther was dead before it hit the ground.
Jansen tried giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, to no avail. Belden carried the corpse out of the swamp over his shoulders, feeling like he was carrying the weight of the panthers' extinction.
A statewide uproar ensued. Everglades defender Douglas called for ending the whole panther research program. Let the poor cats go extinct in peace, she said. Douglas' biographer, Jack E. Davis, wrote in An Everglades Providence that she based her position on the annoyance she had seen among her house cats when she put a collar on them.
Belden, though not officially blamed, was transferred out of South Florida. Eventually, state officials resumed the captures. But now the team included a veterinarian who gave each panther a thorough physical exam.
The vet discovered that the 20 or so remaining panthers were suffering from genetic defects. Their population had become so small that they were inbreeding, which meant a proposed captive breeding project to replenish the population wouldn't work.
In 1995, state officials tried something unprecedented. They sent McBride to Texas to bring back eight female cougars to Florida and turn them loose. Five bred with male panthers, replenishing the gene pool and causing a population boom. Biologists now estimate there may be 200 panthers in the wild — still not a lot, but more than Florida has had in decades.
The dead panther was stuffed and put on display in front of the state archives in Tallahassee. It remains the only fatality of the three-decade capture program.
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McBride, now 81, still tracks panthers with his dogs, although he's now training his grandson, Cougar, to take over for him. He agrees with Land that it may be time to end the capture program.
"It gave us information we couldn't get any other way," he said. "But I think there's other ways to get that information that may be better."
Belden, now retired, agrees too.
But not Jansen, who since the '80s has been working for the National Park Service in the Big Cypress Preserve — long a stronghold for panthers. She began doing capture work there in 2003. She especially likes new collars that beam GPS points to satellites connected to biologists' computers.
Without those captures and collars, she said, spotting the spread of disease through the panther population is more difficult, noting they helped prevent an epidemic of deadly feline leukemia in 2001.
She says it's also the best way to track when panthers die, because the collars send out a special signal if the cat stops moving for a long time. That signal also helps biologists learn that females have holed up in a den to have kittens.
But because of federal budget cuts, Jansen has been unable to run a capture program in Big Cypress for the past four years. She still has three panthers wearing collars, she said, "but their collars will fail sometime this year."
And then no one will know where the panthers will be.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.