Friday, October 30, 2009

Elusive Florida panther population increasing, expert says

VERO BEACH — They prowl and hide in the deepest parts of the Everglades National Park, but wildlife biologists said they're making progress in getting more accurate counts of the Florida panther population.

Roy McBride, a wildlife biologist and houndsman from Texas, spends several months a year in Florida finding its panthers.

The searches are done either on foot with his pack of hounds or by setting up cameras throughout the Everglades to spot the beasts unaware.

"This is fascinating to me," McBride said about the camera footage. "I usually only get to see the panthers when they're in a tree staring down at my hounds."

McBride spoke Thursday to staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Vero Beach. He said documenting the panther populations has come a long way in the last 50 years.

"In the 1950s, we thought they were extinct," McBride said. "Then we had some sightings, but they were unreliable. We needed something we could hang our hat on."

About 120 panthers were counted in the state in 2008, McBride said. That's compared to just 20 counted in 1985, when state officials began refining their counting methods.

"They're secretive and difficult for us to census," McBride said.

Years of studying the panthers allows McBride to determine the gender of a cat based on the footprints it leaves behind. The fallen prey left behind by a panther also has helped population counts, he said.

Since panthers typically attack other creatures at the neck and eat only certain parts of the body, wildlife biologists have used the carcasses of deer, otters, hogs and even alligators to determine where a panther can be found, McBride said.


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