Will Florida panther be reintroduced to other states to help guarantee it’s survival?

December 21, 2008

(ChattahBox) — The long term future of the Florida panther ultimately may rest on it’s expansion to other states. While Florida’s panther population has grown over the past 15 years¬† it has run out of room in fast-growing southwest Florida, according to a new federal plan for saving the endangered species. “The current panther population is not considered viable,” the plan states. “Recovery will require reintroduction to establish viable populations in other parts of its historic range.”

The plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the South Florida population has rebounded with male panthers often ranging northwest of Lake Okeechobee. While having the highest number in decades, it says the population remains too small and too geographically concentrated to ensure the panther’s survival. About 20 scrawny cats lurked in the swamps in the 1970s, when panthers were included on the original list of endangered species. There were so few left that, by the 1980s, inbreeding had produced panthers suffering from heart defects and sterility. Extinction seemed certain. In a desperate gamble, state officials brought in eight female Texas cougars in 1995 to cross-breed with the panthers and wipe out the genetic defects. The experiment thankfully worked.

Today, about 120 panthers prowl through an area of about 3,500 square miles that begins just south of the Caloosahatchee River and stretches down through Everglades National Park. The problem is, the group doesn’t have room to grow. But while federal officials hesitate, potential panther habitat is being lost. The best way to save the state animal is to move panthers into the rest of Florida or other states, but federal officials say they aren’t yet ready to do that.¬† Initially the deferred plan calls for two new groups of 80 panthers, with an ultimate goal of 240 cats in each group. For the plan to ultimately work the people of Alabama, Arkansas or Georgia must be persuaded to welcome the return of large predators that had been wiped out as “varmints” a century ago. Arkansas officials have already said no to moving Florida panthers there. Other possibilities include wilderness areas of Georgia and “in widely scattered and relatively small patches” in Central and North Florida, the plan states.

While the government agencies weigh their options,”development pressure and human population growth will decrease the opportunity for panther expansion north of the Caloosahatchee River,” the recovery plan says. That’s already a problem where panthers live now. From 1990 to 2004, for instance, Collier County’s human population nearly doubled, going from 152,000 to 296,000, while Lee County has increased from 335,000 to more than half a million residents. Now there are more conflicts than ever between the secretive panthers and their human neighbors. Forty-eight panthers have been hit by cars since 2000, and all but two of those died. It would be such a shame to lose these beautiful creatures. As Steve Williams, president of the Florida Panther Society said: “I would like to see the Florida panther, which is symbolic of the heritage of this nation, survive.”


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