Hello, kitty: Two young cats in new area a leap for endangered Florida panther

A trail camera shot this picture of a female Florida panther kitten north of the Caloosahatchee River earlier this month.
A trail camera shot this picture of a female Florida panther kitten north of the Caloosahatchee River earlier this month. Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Pass out the cigars. A pair of panther kittens have been born north of the Caloosahatchee River, Florida wildlife officials reported Monday.

The presence of the kittens, confirmed when a trail cam recorded a nursing female tailed by two female kittens earlier this month, means that the endangered cats’ struggle to survive appears to have leaped a significant hurdle: hope for establishing a second, distinct population. Wildlife officials believe the kittens are the offspring of the first female documented north of the river in Southwest Florida since 1973, when the cats were added to the endangered species list.

“This is a major milestone on the road to recovery for the Florida panther,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski said in the state’s version of a birth announcement.

Most of the endangered cats, which dwindled to just under 50 by the 1990s, still live south of the river on increasingly crowded territory, leading them to die in record numbers, with the number of road kills reaching new highs every year for the last three years. Males, which roam a much larger territory, have been spotted repeatedly north of the river, but the females never managed to cross it.

A recovery plan calls for three distinct populations to protect the cats against disease and reduce the amount of inbreeding that nearly wiped out the cats. In 1995, with reproduction rates dropping and the appearance of other ailments including heart problems and kinked tails, wildlife officials released nine Texas cougars to breed with the panthers and freshen the gene pool.

The plan worked so well that the population south of the river more than doubled. This year, FWC officials announced they were hiking their officials tally of the cats to between 120 and 230.

But the swelling population has not always been welcomed. In recent years, ranchers and hunters have repeatedly complained that the cats, squeezed onto too little land, were attacking livestock and driving down deer populations. In 2015 they backed a plan to cut the recovery plan to just a single population, which environmentalists fiercely criticized as an attempt to lift regulations on pastures and clear the way for future development. The plan was tabled after critics packed a meeting that included five hours of public comment.

Over the years, wildlife officials considered moving females across the river, but struggled to find a willing landowner and kept their fingers crossed that the cats would make their own way north.

After the female was confirmed in Charlotte County last year in the state’s Babcock Ranch Preserve Wildlife Management Area, wildlife officials set up more trail cameras. Then, earlier this year, the trail cams snapped a picture of what appeared to be a nursing female, said FWC panther team leader Darrell Land.

With the kittens north of the river, Land said it appears the panthers have overcome what was long thought to be the main obstacle to expanding the population.

Now if they can just avoid getting run over.

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