For the first time in more than 40 years, a female Florida panther has been spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River, long regarded as the northern limit for the sole remaining population of the endangered state animal.
"This is a big deal for panther conservation," said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's habitat and species conservation division. "An expansion of the panther's breeding range should improve the prospects for recovery."
For more than a year, state biologists had been closely watching what they called "a suspicious panther" showing up in photos on trail cameras they had posted on Babcock Ranch. The 74,000 acres of pasture and wilderness north of the river in southwest Florida was bought by taxpayers for $350 million in 2008.
The black-and-white photos were shot at night, the time panthers prowl. While the animal's smaller size suggested it was female, the pictures were too blurry to be sure, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Dave Onorato said Monday.
"In early summer we went up there and deployed more cameras," he said. "On our last trip up there, while we were checking the cameras, one of the biologists saw more pictures of the panther, and he was able to find some tracks."
Those petite paw prints, found Nov. 3, "are definitively female," Onorato said.
Panthers once ranged across the Southeast, but a combination of hunting and loss of habitat nearly wiped them out. The Florida panther is the only puma remaining east of the Mississippi, and by the late 1960s state officials believed it to be extinct.
In 1972, the World Wildlife Fund hired a Texas cougar hunter named Roy McBride to find out if that was true. He found signs that panthers still roamed the wild, and a year later his pack of specially trained Walker foxhounds tracked down one scrawny female panther near Fisheating Creek, which flows west from Lake Okeechobee.
McBride's discovery not only proved panthers still existed. It marked the last time a female was spotted north of the Caloosahatchee. The remaining panthers were confined to south of the river, suffering an inbreeding loop that led to genetic defects and eventual oblivion.
In 1995, though, in a first-of-its-kind experiment, state officials hired McBride to bring eight female Texas cougars to Florida to breed with the remaining male panthers. A population once estimated at 20 to 30 cats has now grown to more than 100.
While the population boomed, though, federal officials allowed continued destruction of the remaining habitat. A 2010 Tampa Bay Times analysis found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hadn't objected to a development in panther habitat since 1993.
Males have been crossing the river from time to time since then, seeking mates and a territory of their own. But females tend to stay close to their mothers, so the chances of one crossing the river seemed remote — until now.
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The discovery that a female finally made it across offers "great hope that the last pumas in the eastern United States will not be forever stuck at the southern tip of Florida," said Tampa nature photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who led the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition to show how natural areas could be linked statewide.
Onorato said biologists have their fingers crossed to see another milestone, considering there are male panthers in the same vicinity.
The female "is an adult, and we would anticipate that she's ready to breed," he said. "The circle isn't complete until she has kittens, and then they have kittens, too."
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.