As federal wildlife officials review the endangered status of the Florida panther, one scientist's work has been singled out as a focus.
In 2000, geneticist Melanie Culver and three fellow scientists published a study of the genetics of big cats that concluded that all the panthers, pumas and mountain lions in North America are actually a single subspecies.
In other words, according to the Culver study, Florida panthers are nothing special, genetically. They're just another big cat in a nation that contains thousands of them, some of which are already hunted. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopts that point of view, it could lead to taking panthers off the endangered list.
But Culver, in an interview, said she believes the Florida panther still belongs on the endangered list, just not the way it's listed now. The U.S. Geological Survey scientist concedes that making a change would require a complex solution.
"You'd have to de-list it and then petition it to be listed as another entity," she said. "That's a legal problem. They'd have to completely lose legal protection to be protected the right way."
Florida panthers have been listed as endangered ever since the first endangered species list was drawn up in 1967. They are also Florida's official state animal, voted in by schoolchildren over such other contenders as the alligator and the mosquito.
They have long been considered a distinct subspecies of the puma that roam wilderness areas of North and South America. At one time, scientists believed there were about 30 such puma subspecies.
Federal rules require the agency to review the status of each endangered or threatened species every five years, and the wildlife agency has announced that it's time for that routine review. But one aspect of the review won't be routine.
"One of the most interesting things we're going to review is the taxonomy," said Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the federal agency. He specifically cited the Culver-led study as something that the agency will consider.
Questions have been raised for years about whether the Florida panther is really a distinct subspecies of the pumas found out West. The questions took a different turn after 1995, when state officials tried an unprecedented experiment to save the panther from inbreeding and genetic defects by bringing in eight female mountain lions from Texas to breed with them.
The cross-breeding saved the panthers, and sparked a baby boom. The panther population, estimated to number no more than 20 to 30 in the mid 1990s, now is estimated at around 200.
But it has raised questions among Southwest Florida residents about whether those are still Florida panthers and whether the state's estimates of the population are correct. Meanwhile some have cited the Culver study as an argument for eliminating their endangered status.
"There are tens of thousands of them throughout North America, they are overpopulated and legally hunted throughout much of their range," outdoorsman Mike Elfenbein of Port Charlotte, who helps run the "Panthers of South Florida" Facebook page, wrote in a 2015 letter to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. "The 'Florida panther' is not now, nor was it ever in danger of going extinct."
But not everyone agrees fully with the Culver study. Dave Onorato, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's panther study program, said one shortcoming is that the study used a small number of samples for the panthers.
He noted that when the state has done its own DNA tests, using an approach different from Culver's, "The panthers still cluster as their own subset, away from the Texas and Western subsets."
Elizabeth Fleming of the Defenders of Wildlife's Florida office contends that without a scientific consensus backing the Culver study's findings, the Fish and Wildlife Service should not change the panther's status.
"It is a native ranging animal, and we think it deserves a place in the Florida landscape," she said.
To Culver, though, the problem is that the panther should not have been put on the endangered list as a subspecies of puma. Instead, she said, panthers belong on the list as what's known as a "distinct population segment" of the puma. The fact that this population of panthers is the only colony of pumas east of the Mississippi, and it's largely confined to the southern tip of Florida, still qualifies them as endangered, in her view.
While 200 panthers is an improvement, she said, it "isn't what we would consider sustainable. That's not great." Over time, genetic defects would creep back in, putting them back on the road to extinction, she said.
Whether the Fish and Wildlife Service follows Culver's advice is unknown. Williams wouldn't speculate on the outcome of his agency's review this week, except to say it would follow the latest scientific findings.
Four months ago, the agency announced it was lowering the protection level of another famous Florida critter, the manatee, from endangered to threatened, despite the objections of a majority of the public that commented on the move, as well as the scientists who had been asked to review it.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.