TAMPA — Because scientists say the rebounding Florida panther has filled nearly all the available habitat in Southwest Florida, state wildlife officials Wednesday told their staff to start working on expanding its population into Central Florida.
The first step: begin this year meeting with big landowners and community groups to prepare them for what life will be like with the state's biggest predator again prowling nearby.
Panthers once ranged across the Southeast, but since at least the 1970s, Florida's official state animal has been largely confined to the wilderness south of the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers.
Occasionally a male panther has swum across the river and wandered north — one making it as far as Georgia before being killed by a frightened hunter — but no females have ever been documented crossing the river. The closest one has ever come to the river is 3 miles away.
For the past 35 years, the federal plan for saving the panther from extinction has called for creating at least two more panther colonies somewhere else —— even if it's outside Florida. All three populations need to have at least 240 panthers to be viable, the plan says.
But no other state that has prime panther habitat has wanted to take the big cats, and federal and state officials have shied away from trying to relocate any into another part of Florida because of the potential controversy.
Now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is ready to take that step.
"Our goal should be to target what the second area is going to be for establishing a second breeding population," wildlife Commissioner Liesa Priddy said, and her fellow commissioners agreed. However, Priddy expressed doubts that the goal of creating 240-panther colonies is "realistic."
Still, she said, the staff should figure out what resources would be needed for moving panthers into Central Florida, "and if it's going to include the relocation of a female." But at this point, state and federal wildlife agency officials say, that's not contemplated.
Priddy, appointed to the commission by Gov. Rick Scott nine months ago, knows this subject better than some of her more experienced colleagues. She and her husband run a cattle ranch near Immokalee that lost at least six calves to hungry panthers this year.
Taking this step comes "at a real critical moment in panther history," Commissioner Brian Yablonski said.
The panther, a Florida icon popular on both license plates and school uniforms, nearly went extinct before 1995. The population had dwindled to about 20 to 30 animals. Because there were so few, interbreeding had led to fatal genetic defects.
But in 1995 state and federal officials tried a bold experiment, bringing in eight Texas cougars — a cousins of the panther — to breed with the endangered cat. Hybrid cats showed a resistance to the genetic defects, which led to a population boom. State biologists estimate there are now 100 to 160 panthers slinking through the swamps and forests.
While the panther population boomed, though, no one stopped development, so now more panthers than ever are squeezed into a smaller area than ever. As a result, the state's panther experts say, the habitat has hit its carrying capacity.
"There's only so many panthers you can pack into a box," explained longtime panther biologist Darrell Land. "Something's got to give."
Because people have moved into what was panther territory, the panthers — nocturnal creatures normally leery of people — have begun showing up in suburban back yards, preying on pets such as goats and chickens, as well as killing calves on ranches such as Priddy's.
In hopes of avoiding controversy over expanding panthers north into Central Florida, the wildlife commission wants to make sure no one is surprised by what that might mean, which means holding meetings to pave the way and reassuring everyone it won't hurt hunting in traditional hunting areas.
"So far the panther story has been a good story, and we don't want to take the success and turn it into a bad story," Yablonski said.
That's also likely to mean offering various government incentives for large landowners to preserve their land as panther habitat and setting up a series of steps to deal with any potential conflicts, wildlife officials said.
The wildlife agency recently set up a Web-based system allowing anyone in Florida to report seeing a panther, said Kipp Frohlich, who's in charge of imperiled species management for the commission. They hope someone in Central Florida will provide them with photos showing a female panther has already crossed the Caloosahatchee, he said.
Several of the wildlife commissioners mentioned that they had accompanied the state's panther capture team in tracking the big cats through the South Florida wilderness. Commissioner Kathy Barco said the one she saw trapped was a female "and I was going to throw her in the back of my car and take her north of the Caloosahatchee. But we found out later she was pregnant with two kittens, so that wouldn't have been a good idea."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]