Wander the pinelands and palm savannas of southwestern Florida's outback, and it isn't hard to sense the presence of the region's unique variety of mountain lion. The Florida panther goes about its deer-, hog- and rabbit-stalking ways here in wraithlike fashion, and it's a red-letter day when you actually clap eyes on one of these ropey, sand-coloured, palmetto-prowling big cats.

A deer hunter in the wild and woolly Big Cypress National Preserve abutting the Everglades landed one of those red-letter days recently – and managed to document his thrilling close encounter on video.

According to FOX 13, Fred Lehman was staked out in full camouflage along a primitive road in the Bear Island area when a panther padded past mere yards away. Upon sensing the man, the cat broke into a trot and then loped off (the typical reaction to a human being for a Florida panther – or just about any puma, for that matter), only to resume its sauntering patrol farther down the track.

Big Cypress National Preserve (which allows closely regulated hunting) is part of the core of the Florida panther's remaining range, and its lightly roaded backcountry – and that of adjoining public lands such as Everglades National Park, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park – offer critical refuge for the puma in otherwise heavily developed and human-thronged South Florida.

As mountain lions vanished from eastern North America, the Florida panther clung to existence as a completely isolated relic, and as a result, it claims the lowest known genetic diversity of any puma population; panthers display evidence of inbreeding, most conspicuously kinked tails. The Big Cypress Swamp (which Big Cypress National Preserve partly encompasses) as well as the Okaloacoochee Slough to the north sheltered most of the last surviving panthers in the 1960s and '70s when they dwindled to fewer than two dozen.

Today, conservation efforts have managed to nurse the panther population to perhaps as many as 230 adults; the gene pool got a boost in the 1990s when the US Fish and Wildlife Service trucked some mountain lions from Texas and released them into panther country (effectively mimicking the natural interchange that historically occurred when puma territory stretched continuously northward and westward from the Florida peninsula).

Efforts to bolster the cat's numbers, genetic diversity and range are complicated by the region's significant people-footprint. A disturbing number of panthers become roadkill on a regular basis – including along the two major paved highways that cleave Big Cypress, the Tamiami Trail (US Route 41) and "Alligator Alley" (Interstate 75) – although fencing and wildlife underpasses are showing signs of mitigating these dangers.

While roadways and subdivisions cramp the panther's style the most, there's also a natural feature that's long proved a tricky obstacle to its northward dispersal in southwestern Florida: the Caloosahatchee River. Lately, though, there's been encouraging news from that front. Thanks to the protection of habitat corridors linking to the river, more and more male panthers – much more disposed to wander than females – have swum it; one showed up in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp a few years back. And in the biggest news yet, a trail camera earlier this year captured photos of a female cat and a pair of kittens north of the river: the first panther litter documented north of the Caloosahatchee in more than four decades.

The female panther that gave birth to the first litter north of the Caloosahatchee since the early 1970s (photo courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission)
One of her kittens, seconds later (Photo courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission)

As for Lehman, FOX 13 reports he didn't end up bagging a deer on his Big Cypress hunt, "but leaving without one, he was satisfied to have spotted the panther and capture video to show to family and friends."



Top header image: Everglades NPS/Flickr