The public has reported hundreds of sightings of Florida panthers to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website launched a year ago, where people can record when and where they saw a panther or its tracks.



As of August 2013, the public had submitted 790 sightings to MyFWC.com/PantherSightings.



Only 12 percent of the reports included a photograph and could be evaluated by FWC biologists. Of those with photos, the majority were confirmed as panthers.



Other animals identified by FWC biologists were bobcats, foxes, coyotes, dogs, house cats and even a monkey. Most often the reported animal or tracks belonged to a bobcat, when it was not a panther. The verified panther reports were largely confined to southwest Florida, the well-documented breeding range for panthers in the state. There also were several verified sightings in south central Florida. There were no confirmed sightings from the Panhandle.



Steve Williams, spokesman for the Florida Panther Society, a not for profit dedicated to conservation of the Florida cats, said young male panthers seeking mates may range far north from the breeding population. He said the northernmost documented sighting was of a young male killed in Eufala, Ala.



He said the South Florida population ranges as far north as Palatka on the east coast, but that the habitat in the Panhandle would be more attractive to panthers than the east coast. “A radio collared male in one study traveled from Perry to within 18 miles of Tallahassee in one day,” Williams said.



Williams said individual cats could remain unseen for extended periods because of their secretive nature. He said that even in areas with known established populations, the cats are rarely captured on motion-triggered game cameras.



The Florida panther population is estimated to be 100 to 160 adults and yearlings, a figure that does not include panther kittens. As recently as the 1970s, the Florida panther was close to disappearing, with as few as 20 animals in the wild.



“The public’s willingness to share what they have seen or collected on game cameras is incredibly helpful and shows us where panthers presumably are roaming in Florida,” said Darrell Land, who heads the FWC’s panther team. “We thank everyone using the Report Florida Panther Sightings website and encourage others to participate in this citizen-science venture.



“As the population of this endangered species grows, the FWC expects more Florida panthers to be seen in areas of the state where they have not lived for decades. To properly plan and manage for the expansion of the panther’s range in Florida, information about where the panthers are is vital.”



The FWC has a new “E-Z guide to identify panther tracks” available at www.FloridaPantherNet.org, where you can also learn more about Florida panthers. - By LOIS SWOBODA