Florida panther

Bottom-Up Conservation – Can Groundcover Restoration Benefit the Florida Panther?

 by Samantha Baraoidan

Panther print on ground
Florida panther track on Okaloacoochee Slough Wildlife Management Area.

December marked the end of the field season for one of Upland Habitat’s flagship programs, the Native Groundcover Restoration (NGCR) Program (more information here). For those unfamiliar with NGCR, it is a collaborative effort between FWRI and the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation – specifically the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system. The goal is to restore areas with low or no value as wildlife habitat, such as relict agricultural fields, clear cuts, or improved pastures. The restoration goals are mainly pine flatwoods and sandhills. To date, we have restored almost 2,500 acres on 18 different management areas. Okaloacoochee Slough WMA (OK Slough) in Hendry County contains some of our longest-running NGCR sites. This season we sampled three sites-in-progress at OK Slough. While breaking for water at the swamp buggy, we noticed some Florida panther tracks in the road (see photo). OK Slough manager, Jean McCollom, informed us that we were in close proximity to the den site of Florida Panther 110, a female known to have mothered several litters of kittens. We frequently observe white-tailed deer and wild turkeys on our NGCR sites at OK Slough, and the thick cover of native bunchgrasses is ideal for small mammals, such as cotton rats and marsh rabbits. All of these are common prey items for female panthers and their kittens. Jean hypothesized that Florida panther 110 might be utilizing our NGCR site as a hunting ground. That particular site began restoration in 2005, and 110 had been denning there since 2010. While incidental observations such as this one are not proof that panthers are utilizing our fields, they do provide clues to the ways that NGCR might be benefiting all native wildlife, from the smallest invertebrates to top-level carnivores. In the future, we hope to implement formal wildlife monitoring programs on NGCR sites in an effort to better understand how habitat restoration helps native species.