Florida's panther population has boomed so much over the past 15 years that it has run out of room in fast-growing southwest Florida, according to a new federal plan for saving the endangered species.
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.
While officials hesitate, potential panther habitat is being lost to development, warns a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife report released Thursday.
"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."
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 worked.
Currently, about 100 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.
"The population size now is relatively close to the carry capacity for that area," said Paul Souza, field supervisor for the agency's South Florida Ecological Services office.
Getting panthers off the endangered species list will require establishing three colonies of 240 panthers each, the plan states.
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, however, "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.
Souza calls saving the panther "the greatest species conservation challenge in the country." But his agency has not blocked a single development permit in the Florida panther's habitat since 1993.
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. There have been scattered reports of panthers attacking dogs.
Squeezed by the lack of habitat and the growing population, a few male panthers made their own start toward launching a colony elsewhere in Florida by swimming across the Caloosahatchee in the late 1990s.
One was killed on Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County. Another made it as far as the outskirts of St. Augustine before it was run over.
But no females have crossed the river, and without them, a new colony can't begin. While state and federal officials have talked for years about moving some females into Central or North Florida, Souza said Thursday that there are still no plans to follow through.
Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation said a coalition of environmental groups has opened negotiations with some big landowners north of the river to see if they would allow panthers on their land. So far, no agreements have been reached.
Government officials hesitate to talk about panther relocation because of a 1993 experiment. State officials released more than a dozen captive-raised Texas cougars near Osceola National Forest in North Florida to see if panthers could someday be released there.
Because the cougars were not afraid of people, they invaded back yards and killed exotic deer, newborn calves, a hog, a horse and one unlucky house cat. By the time the experiment ended, seven cougars had been killed. Two were shot with arrows and one was crippled by a rifle bullet.