Wildlife Feeling the Population Squeeze

On a foggy morning in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, I stopped at the park headquarters to ask a wildlife biologist where I would be most likely to see a Florida panther. I knew a sighting of this critically endangered cat was unlikely, but with so few left in the wild, a melancholy determination compelled me to try. Near the entrance to the biologist’s office, I paused in front of an image posted on the door, framed by a flurry of cartoons, notes and quotes —it was a picture of road kill on a south Florida highway.

The sight of road kill is about as common as the sight of roads themselves. In fact, one million animals die everyday on America’s roads. But there was something especially disturbing about this photo. These mangled, bloody remains, piled in an incomprehensible heap atop the asphalt, belonged to one of the world’s rarest mammals: The object of my early-morning endeavor, the Florida panther. Worse yet, the biologist told me, the photo illustrated a commonplace fate for the cat — wasted on the side of a road, wedged between death and species annihilation, all because a motorist was speeding along, not paying attention.

Less than 100 of these great cats eke out an existence in one of the most tenuous wildlife habitats in the country, South Florida, where population explosions and rampant, unbridled development have devoured all but a patch of natural lands. And while roads and cars are one of the biggest killers of the Florida panther, this species’ long-term survival hinges more tremulously on habitat loss. The south Florida ecosystem, where skies were once blackened by unimaginable flocks of birds, is but a shadow of its former self, and Florida panthers are faced with the daunting task of trying to survive in shadow.

According to Larry Richardson, wildlife biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, human population growth squeezes panthers out in several different ways.

“First, we build in their existing home ranges where they hunt, reproduce and otherwise survive. Second, the public’s perception that Florida panthers exist and roam around populated areas results in growing animosity towards them, and raises the issue of potential attacks, despite the fact that no one has ever been attacked,” Richardson says.

Shrinking spaces have led to increased aggression between panthers, as they try to carve out territories in which to hunt. Panthers killing panthers, which wildlife biologists call intraspecific aggression, in fights over dwindling habitat is generally the leading cause of death, followed closely by road kills.

“To date for 2006, eleven panthers have been killed on southwestern Florida highways,” says Richardson. “Add to this deaths from intraspecific aggression and other mortality, and this year total deaths are out-pacing births. Not a good year for panther recovery.”

Like all large predators in this country, the Florida panther’s struggle for survival can be traced to the moment when the human population explosion became a foregone conclusion. In 1800, 5 million people lived in the United States; by 1850 the figure had grown to 23 million. Over the next 150 years exploded to the current 300 million. And with the increasing density of people came a corresponding plummet of space for and acceptance of wildlife, especially predators.

Only a few centuries ago, when America was still a fledgling, sparsely populated nation, the Florida panther numbered in the thousands and roamed throughout the Southeast—from Louisiana, north to Tennessee and east to the Atlantic Ocean. But by the late 1800s, states had put a price on the panther’s head in order to tame the land and make way for domestic animals and human development. By 1967, there were only 30 Florida panthers left in the world.

Since then, the cat gained protection under the Endangered Species Act and has more than doubled its population. But a full recovery for the species has been blocked by the many by-products of human population: development, environmental degradation, toxic pollution from power plants, and roads — the same forces that have earned Florida the distinction of having the fourth highest number of endangered species in the nation.

The population of this state has erupted over the past century and a half, from less than 100,000 in 1845, to 3 million in 1950, to more than 17 million today. More people come and more roads are built and more wetlands dug up and paved over every day. If current trends continue, Florida’s population will top 25 million in less than 25 years.

The accuracy of this population forecast may well determine the ultimate fate of the Florida panther. This cat, a relative of the cougar that can reach eight feet long and 130 pounds, preys mostly on deer and wild hogs, and males defend home ranges of up to 200 square miles. Condo living is not an option for these creatures, but the land they need to exist is disappearing daily by the dump truck load.

ANIMALS VS. HUMANS?

For the grizzly, a species whose numbers plummeted a century ago from 100,000 bears to less than 1,000, population has begun to stabilize and increase. But the grizzly’s range, which used to cover most of the land west of the Mississippi, remains limited to a mere two percent of what it was historically. And the bear’s expansion is hindered by the ever-encroaching presence of humans. Outside of Alaska, the nation’s grizzly bears exist in a handful of isolated pockets in the northwest. As grizzly populations have increased in the past few decades, however, they have begun to venture out of the mountains and into the lowlands where more nutritious forage is found in spring and fall. These foothills and lowlands are crucial to grizzly recovery — the species’ territory normally covers several hundred square miles — but they are meeting resistance from the ranching industry. And though the populations in the Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems are increasing, conflicts with livestock have stymied recovery in Washington and Idaho populations.

Recovery figures for wolves are also guardedly promising. By the 1960s, systematic extermination of the animal, previously found in every part of the United States, left them in Alaska, with a few hundred in the upper Midwest. In Michigan, for example, wolves were removed from every county until almost none remained. Since the Endangered Species Act made it a crime to kill them, however, the animals have been slowly returning to Michigan. But the wolf population is increasing in a land very different than their original habitat: In 1830, Michigan had a population of 28,000; now, it is 10 million. Nonetheless, the species has learned how to live in sparsely populated rural areas, and now 80 packs roam the Upper Peninsula.

Wolves have been especially successful moving into areas where human population is shrinking, notes Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Areas in northern Michigan where industrial economies have folded and people are leaving to find work, for example, provide an amenable place for wolves to raise a family. “They’re kind of moving into places that are being abandoned by people,” says Schneider.

The state Department of Resources reports that “the comeback of the gray wolf” has been a “remarkable wildlife success story,” with the wolf population increasing in just ten years, from an estimated 20 animals in 1992 to nearly 280 animals.

Obstacles to wolf recovery remain, however. In Alaska, where wolves are most numerous at 6,000, the state has sanctioned the aerial gunning of the animals because sport hunters don’t want to compete with wolves for game, namely moose. Outside of Alaska, the United State’s largest population of wolves lives in the upper Midwest, where more than 3,000 now make their home. But there is talk of hunting wolves to keep them from butting up against human populations. And studies have shown that even though many people support wolf conservation in Michigan, they fear having wolves living in proximity to them, though statistically a person faces a greater danger from dogs or bees.

These graceful hunters managed to survive a hostile period of human takeover — laying low until people came to recognize their beauty and importance — only to butt up against the mounting human population that threatens to block their ultimate recovery. Whether wolves, bears and Florida panthers will survive the continued growth of human populations remains to be seen.

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