Florida panthers have roared back from just a few dozen 20 years ago to between 100 to 180 adult panthers statewide today.
They've ducked extinction, with a little help from eight female Texas pumas released in Florida in 1995.
But because of dwindling habitat, the land south of the Caloosahatchee River has probably reached the limit of how many of the endangered cats it can support, biologists with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told FWC commissioners at their meeting this week in Fort Myers.
Potential downsides of the cat's recovery: More pets and cows could become panther prey, and more panthers could become road kill.
"Due to the expansive habitat needs of the Florida panther, the continued growth of their population presents a unique challenge to the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy said. "As panther range expands, impacts on private landowners will continue to increase."
Because of four decades of conservation efforts, the panther population has grown significantly since the 1970s, when the species was federally listed as endangered. At that time, Florida panthers were thought to number a few dozen individuals.
The species continued to lose genetic diversity from inbreeding and was thought to number just 20 to 30 panthers in the 1990s. They suffered heart defects, abnormal sperm, kinked tails and other genetic defects.
But introducing eight female Texas pumas helped to restore genetic diversity, resulting in a more than 10 percent increase in kitten survival, a population growth rate of about 4 percent annually and a much reduced probability of the species going extinct in the next 100 years, FWC officials said.
FWC brought the Texas cats to the Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Everglades National Park, known panther habitats.
At least 17 offspring resulted from sub-species crossbreeding.
Historically, panthers ranged throughout Florida and into seven other southeastern states. Today, most panthers are south of the Caloosahatchee River in Florida. FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are preparing for the natural expansion of the increasing population.
Because large tracts of land are needed to sustain a healthy panther population, wildlife officials say private landowners will be vital in expanding the panther's range.
But more panthers means more run-ins with people. So FWC and other agencies are working with landowners to address those challenges.
"We know panthers can prey upon pets and livestock, and we strive to find solutions that work for people who experience these very real losses," said Thomas Eason, director of the FWC's division of habitat and species conservation.
Cars are among the panther's biggest threats. Ten to 15 panthers are killed by vehicles each year.
People often think they've seen a panther galloping through their yards, with occasional reports of sightings in Viera and Suntree.
But Florida panthers are rarely seen and often are confused with bobcats, dogs and coyotes.
Panthers are mostly nocturnal and are more active during their morning hunting hours.
Young panthers have spots, like bobcats. But distinguishing characteristics include the panther's long tail and large size, up to 150 pounds for adults. Bobcats rarely grow to more than 35 pounds, have spots and usually a short "bobbed" tail.
Florida panthers with a radio collar have been tracked as far north as WaltDisney World in Central Florida, and sightings have been reported as far north as Volusia County west of Daytona Beach.
Have you seen a Florida panther?
- To report dead or injured panthers, call the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cell phone.
- For information on Florida panthers go to FloridaPantherNet.org.
- People can help with panther research by reporting sightings at FloridaPantherNet.org. Reporting observations can help FWC biologists address panther conservation needs by identifying the areas used by these large cats.
- Florida residents can support panther conservation efforts by purchasing a Protect the Panther license plate, available at BuyAPlate.com. Fees from license plate sales are the primary funding source for the FWC's research and management of Florida panthers.