Florida's panther population has hit its peak in the habitat that's left, and federal officials should quickly create new colonies by moving some of them, according to scientists who just published two of the most extensive studies of panthers ever undertaken.
"This population has used up all the available habitat," said Melody Roelke, a scientist who launched the long-term study of panther genetics in the 1980s. Do nothing, she warned, and the population will begin "a steady slope downward" toward extinction.
"The available habitat is saturated," said Stephen O'Brien, one of the scientists who joined Roelke on the just published study. "It's time to start talking about some relocating — that's the next step we should be discussing."
But federal officials say they won't do it, even though they agree that moving some panthers elsewhere is "critical to achieving full recovery of the species," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren.
The problem: Moving panthers, even to parts of Florida where they roamed decades ago, is likely to be politically unpopular.
"Due to many factors, including a lack of public awareness and acceptance, reintroduction is not feasible at this time," Warren said. For now, he said, "we don't have a timetable for reintroduction."
The two new studies, to be published today in the journal Science and the journal Conservation Biology, include as authors not only Roelke and O'Brien but also two state panther biologists, the federal government's top panther expert and the state's longtime panther trapper, Roy McBride. One study focuses on panther genetics, the other on panther kitten survival.
Both depict how close panthers came to going extinct, and how they were saved — temporarily.
Although panthers once roamed the entire Southeast, by the late 1980s the panther population had declined to about 20-30 cats. While working as a veterinarian with the state's panther capture team, Roelke discovered many suffered from potentially fatal birth defects, the result of inbreeding. Some cats had holes in their hearts, and many of the males had no testicles.
State officials initially tried a captive breeding program, but Roelke said the first kitten captured had no testicles — a sign that it would never reproduce.
"I thought, 'That's it. We've lost it,' " she recalled Thursday.
So in 1995 state biologists tried a desperate gamble: They brought in eight female Texas cougars and turned them loose in the swamps of South Florida.
Five of the eight produced crossbred kittens that revived the panther population's genetic diversity. The crossbred kittens spurred a population boom.
The panther population now hovers around 100 and more than half of the genetic makeup of the animals comes from the original Florida panther, Roelke said.
"Genetically and health-wise, the panthers are doing better," said Dave Onorato, a panther biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and another of the study's authors.
But the experiment's success exposed a different problem: the failure to protect panther habitat.
Although the panther is Florida's state animal, it hasn't received the protection promised by the Endangered Species Act. As the St. Petersburg Times reported in April, even as the panther population boomed, the federal agency in charge of protecting the places where panthers roam, hunt and mate has given developers, miners and farmers permission to alter more than 40,000 acres of it.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which spends more than $1.2 million a year on panther protection, has not blocked a single development that altered panther habitat. Former agency employees say every time they tried, "we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster," said Linda Ferrell, who retired in 2005.
To bolster the case for allowing development, agency officials have at times used flawed science and even manipulated figures to make it appear as if there were more panthers than were needed for the species to survive.
The population needs to climb to at least 300 to be self-sustaining, said Roelke, who now works for Science Applications International Corp. Instead, once the panther population hit 110, it reached a plateau because the cats had no room to expand, she said. That's bad.
"The longer it stays at a flat level, the more the gains we've made are likely to be lost," she said.
Without the room to spread out, some of the males are once again breeding with their female relatives, Roelke said. That means genetic defects are likely to become a major threat again soon.
That's why, Onorato predicted, the state will have to bring in more female Texas cougars.
"It's going to have to happen sooner or later," he said.
But the solution that worked last time may not work again because there's no room for extra cats. And even if there were enough habitat for more Texas cougars, Roelke said, "there would be further diluting of the original Florida panther genes."
Instead, she said, what federal officials should do is "grab some female (panthers) now and put them on the other side of the Caloosahatchee River," starting a colony in Central Florida.
Male panthers have crossed the river on their own to explore other parts of Florida — one even made it to Georgia before it was shot by a frightened hunter. But the less adventurous females have remained in South Florida, and without them, no new panther colony can get started.
Relocating panthers, either to other parts of Florida or other states, is something federal officials have talked of doing since 1981. Since that's the only way to guarantee the state animal continues to have a future, said Roelke, "I don't understand what the impediments are."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.