Florida panther could be reintroduced to other states — after local population gets boost
By David Fleshler - South Florida Sun-Sentinel
December 19, 2008
The future of the Florida panther rests on whether the people of Alabama, Arkansas or Georgia can be persuaded to welcome the return of large, fanged predators that had been wiped out as "varmints" a century ago.
A federal plan to restore the Florida panther, released Thursday, calls for establishing new populations outside the endangered cat's South Florida stronghold, although it puts off this politically treacherous task to the distant future.
Meanwhile, the government plans to focus on strengthening the South Florida population.
The plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the South Florida population has rebounded from a low of 20 or 30 to about 120 today, with male panthers often ranging northwest of Lake Okeechobee. While that's the highest number in decades, it says the population remains too small and too geographically concentrated to ensure the panther's survival.
Large predators such as panthers, wolves and grizzly bears — known in the wildlife-protection business as charismatic megafauna — enjoy enormous public popularity, a point that has not gone unnoticed by environmental groups that plaster their photos across their fundraising letters. From a biological perspective, these top predators keep ecosystems balanced, preventing land from being overrun and picked clean by deer or elk.
Beyond that, many people find an aesthetic and moral value in the presence of these powerful carnivores, seeing them as symbols of wildness in an increasingly urbanized world. "There's not much Florida left," said Steve Williams, president of the Florida Panther Society. "I would like to see the Florida panther, which is symbolic of the heritage of this nation, survive."
Among the potential spots to reintroduce panthers are forests in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Initially the plan calls for two new groups of 80 panthers, with an ultimate goal of 240 cats in each group.
But it says reintroduction would be extremely difficult, given the uncertainty of persuading people to accept the arrival of large cats that many fear could kill their pets, farm animals or children. Although there have not been any documented attacks of Florida panthers on people, biologists don't discount the possibility.
Paul Souza, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said a strong South Florida population, in which panther-human difficulties have been worked out, will lay the foundation for introducing the panther to other places.
Williams said the government should focus immediately on creating new populations of panthers outside their current range, rather than continuing to work exclusively on the South Florida population.
"It's a procrastination based on political considerations," he said. "If you're going to revive the subspecies, you're going to have to get about the business of reintroduction. The South Florida population is at capacity. The habitat down there will not support any more cats."
To strengthen the panther's South Florida habitat, the federal plan calls for:
More highway overpasses to reduce the number hit by cars.
Working withranchers, farmers and developers to find ways to allow people to use their land without encroaching on land important to the panther.
The improvement of habitat, like the massive restoration of Picayune Strand, a failed housing development in Collier County that's being restored to its natural state.
Considering transporting female panthers north across the Caloosahatchee River, where they could breed with the male panthers that venture northwest of Lake Okeechobee.
Most importantly, Souza said, it calls for working out ways people and panthers can live together.
"I really believe this is not about procrastination," Souza said. "It's about protecting the foundation, spending time to make sure the southwest population is strong."
David Fleshler can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4535.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org