MIAMI (AP) – Efforts to save the Florida panther from extinction could very well move to the northern part of the state.
Past measures to expand the panthers’ population across Florida’s southern tip have been so successful that wildlife experts now believe they are reaching the habitat limits there. An increase in panthers killed in territorial battles and collisions with vehicles, as well as more cows and other animals killed by panthers, point to a rise in numbers.
As a result, state and federal officials are discussing moving some female panthers farther north to give them more room, rather than waiting for them to spread there on their own.
But the idea is controversial because of concerns that there is not enough vacant land.
“You have no large pieces of property north of the Caloosahatchee that comes close to what you have in South Florida,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Liesa Priddy, referring to the federal government’s panther plan.
Priddy, appointed in January by Gov. Rick Scott, raises cattle in South Florida where roughly one-third of her calves have been attacked by panthers. She said the federal government should develop a plan to compensate livestock growers for loss of their animals as the panther population expands.
Wildlife officials overcame significant controversies in the 1990s, as plans proceeded to introduce genetic variability into the panther population. But the question is whether that success can be replicated as the animals’ range expands. A new clash between people and the panthers in another part of Florida could be inevitable. Even if officials decide not to move any panthers, a female is likely to move north on her own eventually, they contend.
“Sooner or later it’s going to happen,” said Kipp Frolich, endangered species section leader for the FWC.
The Florida panther is a critically endangered subspecies unique to the state that is slowly recovering from a brush with extinction 15 years ago. The population remains under continuous threat, with three panthers dying in recent weeks on Collier County roads and 19 dead so far this year.
As many as 160 of the animals are at or near breeding age – mostly in South Florida, according to the latest state estimates. While that is a vast improvement from 1994, when the panther population hovered around 30 animals, it is far from stable.
Panthers need to form at least three separate populations of about 240 individuals to escape the danger of extinction.
While government intervention has allowed the panther population to expand, large residential developments in South Florida have put additional strain on the animals.
Larry Williams, field supervisor for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service office in Vero Beach. said human population growth in recent years, increases in panther road kill and increases in panther fatalities from territorial battles are all signs that habitat in South Florida may be maxed out.
Past reports documented that panthers range about 3.5 million acres, or about 5,500 square miles, in South Florida.
The big cats’ official protective area is the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, 26,400 acres — about 41 square miles — in heart of the Big Cypress Basin in southwest Florida. Panthers also roam the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, together about 2.2 million acres.
From 2003 to 2008, federal regulators gave developers permission to build on nearly 25,000 acres, with more than double that proposed for future projects.
Last year saw a significant spike in the number of livestock and pets attacked by panthers in South Florida, from 15 reports in 2010 to 30 in 2011.
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