A rare photograph taken in March of a Florida panther and her two kittens is making the e-mail rounds among wildlife biologists and conservation partners who have toiled for decades to restore the big cat’s habitat.

The photo, taken from an airplane above Picayune Strand near Naples, captures the trailing kitten mid-leap, as if euphorically kicking up her heels in delight.

For those who have witnessed the shrinking of the panther’s historic range — now down to 5 percent of its original size — the snapshot is as sweet as January’s high-profile visit from Washington VIPs for a groundbreaking ceremony at the Strand. It’s proof positive that restoring this part of the Everglades is good for Florida’s iconic animal.

Picayune Strand, a 55,000-acre chunk of the Everglades, was drained and partially developed decades ago to build a subdivision. The development failed, and over the years state and federal governments spent $150 million to purchase the land lot by lot. State and federal biologists consider the Picayune Strand an essential piece of remaining panther habitat, connecting other public lands that include the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Since the early 1990s, when the Florida panther was on the brink of extinction, the population in the wild is still less than 100, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In recent months, the Picayune Strand Restoration Project gained momentum with the start of a $53 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to build the first of three pump stations to deliver water back to the landscape. Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland and the late Service Director Sam Hamilton attended the Jan. 6 groundbreaking ceremony.

After three decades of working to protect Florida’s natural resources, including panther conservation, Service wildlife biologist Kim Dryden said, “It’s truly exciting to take this step towards panther recovery.”

In addition to rehydrating the wetlands, the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District are also removing 260 miles of roads. In the photo, taken by Panther Team Leader Darrell Land as part of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission monitoring program, Panther #170 and her kittens are walking on one of the roads where asphalt has been removed.

As Janet Starnes, project manager for the Water District told her colleagues, the panther photo “makes us smile and want to go to work the next day to finish the project.”

Stacy Shelton is a public affairs specialist for the Southeastern region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Want more? Learn more about the endangered Florida panther at this Fish & Wildlife service page.

Rare photo thrills Florida panther supporters
Image of rare panther kitten is proof that efforts to repopulate the animal's native range in the Everglades are reaping rewards.