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Farmers to help save Florida panther

A sleek tan-and-white Florida panther languidly cast his green-eyed gaze around a hotel salon Friday as farming people, usually seen as an enemy, outlined a program to help save the endangered species.

The Florida Farm Bureau Federation announced plans to educate its 103,000 member families and the public on how to manage privately owned land to protect the panther's dwindling habitat.

The 9-year-old, captive-bred, 125-pound cat _ whose parents are among only 30 to 50 Florida panthers surviving in the wild _ was the star of the news conference before the start of the FFBF's 53rd annual convention in Daytona Beach.

The Gainesville-based federation received a $180,000-grant from the Florida Advisory Council on Environmental Education in August for its yearlong educational project. The award was criticized by some environmental groups, which said the organization and many individual farmers and ranchers have failed to cooperate in such efforts in the past.

FFBF President Carl Loop Jr. said he didn't think critics understood what the organization intended to do, adding that there was a growing realization among private landowners that they should work in partnership with conservation groups and the state to enhance wildlife habitat.

Noting that more than 50 percent of the panther's roaming territory is privately owned, Loop said, "We think there has to be an incentive to landowners to keep land in private ownership and provide habitat."

"If we can put some incentive there to keep this land in private ownership" _ instead of selling it off for development or conservation purposes _ "then we think we can have the best of both worlds and not put the burden on the taxpayers," Loop said.

Bernard J. Yokel, president of the Florida Audubon Society and a member of the group that made the grant, agreed with the partnership concept.

"The adversarial approach to protecting wildlife, to protecting sensitive lands, simply hasn't worked," Yokel said.