Biologists find strong evidence a wild female Florida panther is living north of the Caloosahatchee River, something that has not occurred since 1973.
"This is a big deal for panther conservation," said Kipp Frohlich, deputy division director for Habitat and Species Conservation. "An expansion of the panther's breeding range should improve the prospects for recovery."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says the only known breeding population of panthers is south of the Caloosahatchee River, which separates Cape Coral from Fort Myers.
For several years biologists have used trail cameras to monitor male panthers on both public and private lands north of the river.
In 2015, one of the cameras caught what appeared to be a female panther in Charlotte County. However, biologists could not confirm the sighting.
A few months ago, additional cameras were deployed through the county and captured multiple images of what was believed to be a female panther. The photos could not positively confirm the animal's gender.
Earlier this month a biologist discovered panther tracks near a camera that captured some of the photos in question. FWC staff made a plaster cast of the track to preserve it.
The tracks intrigued biologists because they were smaller than a male panther's tracks and larger than a bobcat's.
"When we saw the tracks, we felt confident they were made by a female panther," said Darrell Land, FWC panther team leader. "We could rule out a male panther because by the time males are old enough to leave their mother, their paws are already bigger than females' paws."
The FWC is working with landowners in southwest Florida to help create wildlife corridors to allow panthers travel north and cross the Caloosahatchee River. Biologists are hopeful a female panther in Charlotte County will help begin the natural expansion of the animal's population which is critical for its survival as a species.
"Florida panthers are part of our state heritage. They're our state animal," said Frohlich. "We want to ensure these majestic animals are here for future generations of Floridians. Female panthers moving north of the river on their own is a big step toward this goal."
For information about Florida panthers, including tips on how to safely coexist with them, visit FloridaPantherNet.org.