As panthers strike out north of the Caloosahatchee River, they'll encounter land dominated by large ranches and farms. Roads cut through many of these areas, and the region is dotted with small, often expanding towns. One of the better-known cattle operations in south-central Florida is the 10,500-acre Buck Island Ranch, run by Gene Lollis, a sixth-generation Floridian.
On a March morning before sunrise, I head out on horseback with Lollis, who's wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and blue jeans, along with his son, Laurent, and a group of cowboys, to round up cattle in grasslands spotted with islands of cabbage palm and oak.
Like many ranches, Buck Island—owned by the Archbold Biological Station, a nearby ecological research and education facility—provides critical habitat for wildlife, including panthers.
As dogs bay and the cowboys corral their livestock, I ask Lollis, who leads the Florida Cattlemen's Association, how ranchers view the panther. "We're all pretty positive about them," he says. "They're part of the landscape."
Generally speaking, the rancher and the panther face a common enemy: development, particularly new housing. Every ranch owner has had an offer from developers, Lollis says, adding that the issue is deeply personal -- ranches near Orlando where he worked as a young man have become subdivisions.