Saturday, September 19, 2020

Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Naples Zoo partner to advance panther research

Long-time neighbors and conservation advocates Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Naples Zoo are partnering to help advance panther research in Florida. Under a new agreement, Naples Zoo, a non-profit organization and nationally accredited zoo, is committing $150,000 over the next three years to help fund the Conservancy’s collaborative research efforts related to Florida panther conservation and management. These research projects include providing technical expertise to the Florida Panther Capture Team and establishing non-invasive survey protocols for the inventory and monitoring of Florida panther and their primary prey species, the white-tailed deer.

“Naples Zoo understands the critically important impact we can have on increasing our guests understanding of and appreciation for wildlife and nature,” said Naples Zoo President and CEO Jack Mulvena. “Partnering with the Conservancy to ensure sound and important research on panthers will not only provide important message points as we prepare to introduce a new panther exhibit at the Zoo, but it will serve as a powerful tool to connect guests with wildlife native to Southwest Florida.”

Due in large part to a bold genetic intervention plan and successful land conservation programs, the panther population has made a significant rebound from the critically low estimates of 20 – 30 adult animals in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Unfortunately, the panther remains endangered with the only breeding population confined to South Florida, an area that has likely reached its biological carrying capacity for the big cat.

The current threats to the panther are manifested in many forms: habitat loss, vehicular mortality, declines in prey populations, and loss of genetic diversity.  Many of the lands essential to the panther’s survival are under threat due to the conversion of native forest and ranchlands for human development and urban sprawl. As Southwest Florida’s human population continues to grow, the pressures to develop these lands will only increase.

“In spite of great conservation strides over the past decades, the Florida panther population remains at risk and deserves our collective vigilance,” said Conservancy Wildlife Biologist David Shindle. “Florida panther recovery must continue to be guided by the best available science and supported by collaborative efforts in order to ensure that future generations have the privilege of sharing the landscape with this Florida icon.”

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, having science staff with extensive panther research experience, is in a unique position amongst environmental non-government organizations to provide in-kind support and scientific expertise to government agencies responsible for Florida panther recovery and management.  In addition to providing assistance the Florida Panther Capture Team through a cost-sharing cooperative agreement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Conservancy science staff recently initiated a large-scale, multi-year remote camera project on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent public lands. This camera project will provide an integral component to a multi-faceted collaborative research effort tasked with developing robust protocols for monitoring panther and deer populations.

The need to identify, evaluate, and use the least intrusive monitoring technique to accurately monitor population demographics of panther and prey are important recovery actions identified in the USFWS’s Florida Panther Recovery Plan.  “White-tailed deer are not only an important indicator of panther habitat quality but are a valuable resource for Florida’s sportsmen and private landowners,” added Shindle.  “Nowhere else in the eastern United States are deer population numbers and our ability to accurately measure them so intricately tied to the management, conservation, and recovery of an endangered large carnivore.”

The partnership between the Naples Zoo and the Conservancy will facilitate the continuation of collaborative research through public-private partnerships that will help advance the science needed to assess Florida panther recovery efforts. “In addition to being great neighbors, Naples Zoo shares our passion for conservation education,” said Conservancy President and CEO Rob Moher. “We are grateful for their generous donation that will help us to continue our important work addressing critical panther recovery actions.”

In addition, the two organizations will present a presentation on the Florida panther on Tuesday, Sept. 9 at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in the Eaton Conservation Hall, 1495 Smith Preserve Way in Naples. Naples Zoo and Conservancy members are free. The cost for non-members is $10. Please call 239-262-0304 to register to attend.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida began 50 years ago when community leaders came together to defeat a proposed “Road to Nowhere” and spearheaded the acquisition and protection of Rookery Bay. The Conservancy is a not-for-profit grassroots organization focused on the critical environmental issues of the Southwest Florida region, including Glades, Hendry, Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, with a mission to protect the region’s water, land and wildlife. Conservancy of Southwest Florida and its Nature Center are located in Naples, Fla. at 1495 Smith Preserve Way, south of the Naples Zoo off Goodlette-Frank Road. For information about the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, call 239-262-0304 or visitwww.conservancy.org

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