POLK CITY — A Florida panther track was confirmed in late August north of Interstate 4 near tiny Polk City, which calls itself the “Gateway To The Green Swamp.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials said the panther is the first in decades proven to roam that far north in Polk.
The track was discovered by retired state wildlife officer Earlie Sullivan. He called FWC biologists, who verified the track. Further proof was found in photos from a nearby motion-tripped camera that captured a panther image.
The area is only a short distance from property owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, also north of I-4. The land is going through the government process to gain federal recognition and reservation status.
Future residents – Tampa Seminoles displaced by the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa expansion – use the mostly wilderness property for youth campouts and special Tribal gatherings like last month’s Family Fun Day.
“Yeah, I heard about it, but I’m not surprised,” said Paul Simmons, Tampa maintenance manager.
Simmons said he nor his staff have seen evidence that the endangered Florida panthers are using the Tribe’s lands.
“We’re out here riding around this place all the time,” he said. “If there was something like that, we’d see it. And, you know, we got a lot of water and woods out here, deer, turkey and other prey animals. And very little commotion, no cars going by. In fact, very few people ever come out here, except on our fun days. Almost perfect, actually, for panthers.”
The area in and around the Tribe’s 900-plus acres is rich with plants and endangered animals.
The Green Swamp’s 850 square miles is home to 40 percent of the state’s native vertebrate species and 31 rare or endangered animals, including bald eagles, black bears, fox squirrels, alligators and snakes, according to information on Polk City’s website.
“There’s really no reason not to expect panthers to find us,” said Simmons, a former gator wrestler and snake handler. “I don’t think it is any cause to worry. From what I’ve always heard, it’s extremely rare for panthers or cougars to attack humans.”
With current population estimations at 160-180, panthers have been slowly migrating northward from their main breeding areas in South and Southwest Florida, including the Tribe’s Big Cypress Reservation, where panther sightings are not uncommon and occasionally witnessed by employees and tourists.
To reach Polk City, a Big Cypress panther would have to swim across the Caloosahatchee River and cross busy I-4, among several other roadways. So far, surveillance by FWC officials has indicated that only males have made it past the river. Looking for female companionship, the long-distance travelers keep moving, eating on the run.
In April, a Lake Wales hunter claimed a panther attacked him near Lake Kissimmee while he was calling turkeys. The hunter waited three weeks for his wounds to heal before reporting the attack.
State officials discounted the account, which if true would have been the first recorded panther attack on a human since the 1800s. The 77-year-old man’s excuse for waiting so long: He figured no one would believe him.
It is clear that panther activity in Polk County has been increasing.
“Panther Crossing” signs were erected several years ago along State Road 60, east of Lake Wales, near a spot where a panther was killed by an automobile. Last February, a state biologist photographed panther tracks at the southern edge of the Green Swamp, below I-4 near Davenport.
A panther, crossing a side road east of Fort Meade, was hit by a car last April and is in recovery. In recent years, Florida panther activity has been confirmed in the Avon Park Air Force Range, east of Frostproof, and at Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, east of Haines City.
Since the 1980s when panther numbers were estimated at less than 30, sightings were recorded and confirmed in Polk and as far north as Flagler County, north of Daytona Beach, and in Volusia, Orange, Brevard and Highlands counties, indicating a continuing dispersal from South Florida. According to FWC, 74 panthers have been killed in auto collisions over the past five years.
In the past two years FWC officials say they have received 1,537 reports of panther sightings, 275 of which have been verified.
“If we do see any panthers, the first thing I’ll do is contact the (Tribal) Legal Department,” Simmons said. “We want to make sure we handle everything correctly.”
There is no requirement for “panther spotters” to report panther activity to FWC, though the agency does provide a website asking spotters to record their observations and post photos.
Similarly, the Seminole Tribe does not require Tribal members or staff to make panther reports to the FWC, according to the Tribe’s General Counsel Jim Shore.
Shore said it is up to the individual to report panther activity, whether it is to the state, his office or Tribe department heads.
“Right now, it is not something we monitor. It’s up to the individual. The Tribe cooperates with the state panther programs but does not require panther reports,” he said.
To submit photographs of panthers, panther tracks or other evidence, visit www.MyFWC.com/PantherSightings.