Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) comprises 26,605 acres in the heart of southwest Florida’s Big Cypress Basin, in the northern portion of the Fakahatchee Strand of the Big Cypress Swamp.
The location is 20 miles east of Naples, Florida at the northwest corner of the intersection of I-75 and SR29.
History of the Refuge
For hundreds of years, towering cypress trees up to 130 feet tall and 25 feet in circumference dominated the landscape of what is now Florida Panther NWR. In response to the Second World War, logging of cypress trees throughout the Big Cypress basin started in 1944. An average of 1,000,000 board feet per week was harvested from the swamp using temporary railroads. The logging operations started in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and moved north through the refuge area. By 1957, the last of the trees were harvested, except for those found in the Corkscrew Audubon Preserve. Slowly the cypress swamps have recovered as a new generation of cypress replaces the fallen giants. Many of the logging scars have healed over the past five decades. The old raised railroad beds are still utilized by refuge staff to access portions of the refuge.
Immediately prior to refuge establishment, the land was owned by the Collier family and was primarily used for private hunting leases and cattle grazing. A few home sites and hunting camps were located on the land. In 1989, the US Fish & Wildlife Service purchased the initial 24,300 acres from the Collier family for $10.3 million dollars. In 1996, the refuge was expanded to 26,400 acres with the addition of more Collier family land through the Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988.
The Florida Panther NWR was established in 1989 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the Florida panther and its habitat. The refuge is located in the core of occupied panther territory, and protection of this important area was needed to ensure that not only panthers and their habitat were protected, but also important wildlife corridors that connected adjacent private and public lands. Wildlife crossings under I-75 and State Road 29 ensure that wildlife, including panthers, can travel safely between the refuge and adjacent lands. On average, 6-12 panthers utilize the refuge each month.
Public access to the refuge has not been allowed since the refuge’s inception because various outdoor recreation activities would generally disturb the activities of panthers or their prey. This would be inconsistent with the refuge’s purpose of providing optimal panther habitat. However, refuge staff and its cooperating Friends’ Group have established two hiking trails with a small parking lot, accessed from SR 29, just north of I-75. There is a 0.3-mile interpretive trail that is easily accessible by all, and a 1.3-mile trail that meanders through more diverse panther habitat.
Habitat in the Refuge
The refuge is characterized by lush tropical vegetation with over 700 species of plants. Cypress strands meander through the refuge. Tropical hardwood hammocks, which are dominated by ancient live oaks, are found along upland ridges. Acres of slash pine and saw palmetto lie adjacent to wet prairies blooming with glades lobelia, tickseed and prairie milkweed. Rare orchids and bromeliads are found throughout this mix of habitats. This diversity depends upon the seasonal dry and wet cycles that define the south Florida climate. Summer brings daily rain showers that flood much of the refuge. The surface water slowly sheet-flows across the flat landscape. This water is not only the lifeblood of the refuge, but recharges the underground aquifers that supply the refuge’s urban neighbors. As the days shorten, the daily rain showers disappear, and for the next six months, the wet prairie and swamps dry out.
Wildlife on the Refuge
The refuge is home to many species of wildlife. The refuge is a perfect example of how important the Florida panther is as an umbrella species. Black bear, bobcats, fox, and coyotes prowl the refuge. Panthers find plenty of prey to feed upon due to the healthy white-tailed deer population. Wild turkeys are frequently seen on the refuge, as are many species of song birds, wading birds, hawks, and owls. At night, bats feed on myriads of mosquitoes. The seasonal and permanent ponds on the refuge provide habitat for amphibians and many species of fish. Alligators and diamond-back rattlesnakes also frequent the refuge, as do many other species of reptiles. The diversity of habitats on the refuge provides a healthy environment for an array of wildlife species.
How many panthers use the refuge?
On a monthly time frame, 6-12 panthers use a portion of the refuge for hunting, traveling to other areas, resting, or denning.
All habitat management activities on the refuge benefit the Florida panther and are intended to improve, restore, and maintain optimal conditions for the panther and other plants and animals that depend on healthy native habitats. Prescribed burning and non-native (exotic) plant removal are two of the most important habitat management techniques.
Another management activity includes cabbage palm removal in selected area of the refuge. Over the past 40-50 years, roads and canals have lowered water levels on the refuge and altered plant communities. Cabbage palms invaded habitats that used to be wetter, such as the prairies and hydric pinelands. Based on historical aerial photographs, the refuge staff determined that cabbage palms were not present in high densities in these habitats prior to drainage of the refuge. The high density of cabbage palms adversely affected the grasses and low-growing native plants in the prairies and pine flatwoods, making these areas less desirable for white-tailed deer, the primary prey of panthers. To restore these areas to historic conditions, and, consequently, improve the habitat for white-tailed deer, cabbage palms are mechanically removed or killed with herbicide.
Prescribed Fire Program
The refuge staff, with other professionals, applies prescribed fire to various habitats to accomplish a variety of objectives. Fire is an inexpensive and efficient tool that has been used for thousands of years to clear the undergrowth and revitalize the understory species. Fire on the refuge is used to maintain native plant communities and improve wildlife habitat especially that for panthers. Also, we employ prescribed fire successfully to reduce the natural fuel loads where we can reduce the risk of severe damage to woodlands that could otherwise occur with a rampant wildfire. In other words, fire danger to habitat and to our neighbors’ property is lowered through the careful application of fire.
Non-Native and Invasive Plant Removal
As people moved into Florida, they brought non-native plants with them to landscape their property. Some of these plants escaped cultivation and became established in the natural areas of Florida. Several of the most prolific species on the refuge are Brazilian peppertree, melaleuca, cogon grass, and old-world climbing fern. These species are extremely invasive and can limit or prevent native plants from growing in natural areas. Large acreages of these invasive plants change the fire regime of the area, reducing fire in some cases and increasing its destructive effects in other circumstances. Non-native plants also degrade wildlife habitat. By removing these plants from the environment through the use of mechanical removal, herbicides, or biological means (e.g. release of specific insects that parasitize or consume a specific plant species), vegetative communities are improved for wildlife.
The Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the refuge and the preservation of the Florida panther. The refuge often works with other organizations to accomplish its goal of protecting the Florida panther and managing refuge habitats. Florida Forest Service, National Park Service, Florida Park Service, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are all dedicated partners.
The Florida Panther Posse is an environmental education partnership between the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge, USFWS, FWC, and Florida Gulf Coast University’s “Wings of Hope” program, which educates elementary students, teachers, and the community about the Florida panther.
For more information about Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, visit the refuge website: www.fws.gov/floridapanther
Where can I see a panther in the wild?
The Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve immediately south of the refuge has a primitive road, Jane’s Scenic Drive, which traverses through panther habitat. While panthers are very secretive and chances are slim to actually see one, you may get lucky either driving this road or walking an old logging road off of Jane’s Scenic Drive.
How are panthers studied in their habitat?
Our biologists, along with state biologists, follow previously captured panthers through use of radiotelemetry. This technique involves receiving a radio signal from a cat which has had a radio transmitter attached to its neck. Following these signals enables a biologist to: locate the panther in its habitat, determine where and when panthers may come in contact for breeding, locate den sites, determine travel patterns, and learn about when a panther dies. A very promising method for biologists to monitor panthers includes digital photography from trail set cameras which yields data on reproduction and relative abundance of panthers. Also, biologists interpret panther tracks and scrapes left in trackable areas on the refuge and other areas.