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Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Florida Panther NWR was established in 1989 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the Florida panther and its habitat. The refuge consists of 26,400 acres and is located within the heart of the Big Cypress Basin in southwest Florida. This subtropical ecosystem covers more than 2,400 square miles of diverse wetland and upland habitat types. The refuge encompasses the northern origin of the Fakahatchie Strand, which is the largest cypress strand in the Big Cypress Swamp. Orchids and other rare plants are found within the refuge.

The refuge contains a diverse mix of pine forests, cypress domes and strands, wet prairies, hardwood hammocks, and lakes. Besides the panther, 24 other species of mammals, birds and reptiles found in and around the refuge are state or federally listed as threatened, endangered or of special concern. The Florida black bear, alligator, wood storks, limpkin, swallow-tailed kite, indigo snake, Everglades mink, and Big Cypress fox squirrel are a few examples. Other resident wildlife include white-tailed deer and feral hogs, which are prey for panthers. Wild turkey and bobwhite quail also can be found on the refuge.

Florida panthers den, hunt and roam throughout the refuge and adjacent lands. The refuge is located within the core of the heaviest, radio-collared panther distribution. The refuge is utilized by 5-11 collared panthers each month.

Getting There . . . The Florida Panther NWR is located 20 miles east of Naples, FL, on the northwest corner of the intersection of I-75 and State Road 29. The headquarters for the refuge is located at 3860 Tollgate Blvd, Naples, FL, within the Comfort Inn at exit 101 on I-75.

Wildlife and Habitat

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is characterized by lush tropical vegetation. Rare orchids, bromeliad, royal palms, and cypress intermix with stands of oaks, cabbage palms, and gumbo limbo. Slash pine with saw palmetto understory lie adjacent to wet prairies blooming with glades lobelia, tickseed and prairie milkweed. This diversity of habitats depends upon the seasonal dry and wet cycles that define the south Florida climate. Summer brings daily rain showers that flood much of the refuge. The water slowly sheet-flows across the flat landscape. This water is not only the lifeblood of the refuge, but recharges the underground aquifers that supply the refuge's urban neighbors. As the days shorten, the daily rain showers disappear, and for the next six months the wet prairies and swamps dry out.

The rich diversity of plant life on the refuge is mirrored by its equally diverse wildlife. Florida panther and black bear prowl the forests while wild turkey and white-tailed deer forage in the hammocks, pinelands, and prairies. Tufted titmouse and northern parulas nest in the oak hammocks, as wood storks and other wading birds utilized the seasonal wetlands for foraging. Pig frogs grunt their chorus from the swamps and swallow-tailed kites soar overhead. As night falls, barred owls silently hunt for prey as bats dive after the myriads of mosquitoes. This rich assemblage is dependent on the same healthy environment that the human population depends upon.

History

For hundreds of years, towering cypress trees up to 130 feet tall and 25 feet in circumference dominated the landscape of what is now Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Expanses of pines, wet prairies and hardwood hammocks also were found here. Native American Indians utilized these lands for hunting, fishing and gathering. By 1913 the area was purchased by the Lee Tidewater Cypress Company. Logging of the cypress started in 1944 in response to wartime needs. An average of 1,000,000 board feet per week was harvested. The trees were removed from the swamp via temporary railroads, which were built along roadbeds created by draglines. Many of these .tram roads. are still visible and are used to access remote areas of the refuge. The logging operations started in the south in what is now Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and moved north through the refuge area. By 1957, the last trees were harvested. Destructive wildfires followed the logging operations, further altering the habitat. Unfortunately, the harvest of these mighty trees decimated associated plant species such as the beautiful ghost and cowhorn orchids. Slowly the cypress swamps have recovered as a new generation of cypress replaces the fallen giants. Many of the logging scars on the landscape have healed over the past four decades. Today, the only remaining stand of virgin cypress within the Big Cypress basin is located in National Audubon Society.s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 10 miles north of the refuge.

Immediately prior to refuge establishment, the land was owned by the Collier family and was primarily used for private hunting leases and cattle grazing. A few home sites and hunting camps were located on the area. In 1989, the Service purchased the initial 24,300 acres from the Collier family for $10.3 million dollars. In 1996, the refuge was expanded to 26,400 acres with the addition of more Collier family land through the Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988. The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the Florida Panther.

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
3860 Tollgate Blvd
Suite 300
Naples, FL 34114
E-mail: floridapanther@fws.gov
Phone Number: 239-353-8442
Visit the Refuge's Web Site: http://floridapanther.fws.gov

Information provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service