Lawrence's cry of anguish at the loss of the creature that gave meaning to that canyon could be the cry of anyone mourning the loss of an entire species. The "brilliant frost of her face," of which he makes much in the poem, is gone, and the ice and snow on the mountains are dim now, the desert no longer a real place, the trees like toys. The animating spirit has gone out of the landscape.
Lawrence spent time in New Mexico in the early and mid-1920s, and probably saw mountain lions there. While the species is not threatened at present in the southwestern U.S., the Florida panther, the only remaining subspecies of mountain lion east of the Mississippi, has all but vanished from that landscape. Its numbers have stayed stubbornly below 100 individuals, and extensive efforts to save it have met with enormous challenges. Also going by the names cougar or puma, the Florida panther is darker in color, lighter in weight, and has longer legs and smaller feet than other members of the species. It is also distinguished by a cowlick on its back and a kink in its tail. Though its range once stretched from Arkansas to South Carolina and southward, its last members are now found only in southern Florida, in and near the Everglades. This is a region with survival threats of its own, thanks to many years of extensive road and canal building, water diversion, development, and agricultural runoff.
It is these same activities that have presented a major threat to the Florida panther, as habitat has become increasingly fragmented and shrunken. Panthers inhabit a variety of land cover types, preferring wooded areas such as hardwood hammocks and pine woodlands; yet Florida loses nearly 250 square miles of forest per year.1 Much of the best habitat is on private land, which is steadily being turned into citrus groves, golf courses, and suburbs. Barriers abound. Highways have become a menace, as panthers cross them routinely; in 2009 a record 17 individuals were killed by vehicles, severely imperiling the survival of such a small population.2
One of the biggest problems is the prevalence of inbreeding. With so few potential mates, individuals breed with family members, and the gene pool becomes homogeneous, promoting defects. Florida panthers broadly exhibit congenital heart defects, thyroid dysfunction, immunosuppression, and reproductive disorders. 90% of sperm are deformed; 90% of male panthers have at least one undescended testicle. Even the cowlick and the tail kink are genetic defects. And with such a uniform immune system, the entire remaining population could be eliminated instantly by the right invasive organism.3,4
More recently another hazard has been identified, one that could also be responsible for many of the aforementioned defects. Endocrine disruptors, such as mercury and PCBs, appear to have accumulated in the bodies of many panthers, especially those whose diet includes large numbers of raccoons.5 These environmental contaminants may prove to be a significant threat as well.
In 1995, with numbers between 30 and 50 and in the wake of a failed attempt at captive breeding, the decision was made to import eight female Texas cougars to diversify the gene pool and enhance the survival prospects of the handful of kittens born each year. The experiment, though controversial, has succeeded in greatly diminishing the number of birth defects and increasing the sexual functioning of males.6 Other recent efforts involve the construction of wildlife underpasses under highways in tandem with fencing to reduce collisions.7 Discussions are ongoing – as always – on the setting aside of additional land for protected habitat. And the Everglades has been the beneficiary of significant efforts to restore its hydrological functioning, though progress is variously defined and marches on in many different guises.
The first four months of 2010 saw the births of twelve kittens.8 Perhaps they will thrive and help to offset the loss of 25 panthers in the previous year. Perhaps ways will be found to reduce road kill and environmental contamination. Perhaps there will still be room for us and a mountain lion.
1 Meegan, RP & Maehr, DS. "Landscape conservation and regional planning for the Florida panther." Southeastern Naturalist 1.3 (2002): 217-232.
2 Hance, Jeremy. "Over 15 percent of Florida panther population lost last year due to car collisions." Mongabay.com (January 7, 2010). http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0107-hance_floridapanther.html.
3 Fergus, Chuck. "The Florida panther verges on extinction." Science 251 (March 8, 1991): 1178-1180.
4 Facemire, CF; Gross, TS; & Guillete Jr., LJ. "Reproductive impairment in the Florida panther: nature or nurture?" Environmental Health Perspectives 103.Supplement 4 (May 1995): 79-86.
6 Morgan, Curtis. "Panther population rebounds." Ocala Star-Banner B1 (February 10, 2002).
7 Foster, ML & Humphrey, SR. "Use of highway underpasses by Florida panthers and other wildlife." Wildlife Society Bulletin 23.1 (1995): 95-100.
8 PantherNet, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://www.floridapanthernet.org/index.php/pulse.