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Rare panther killed on I-4

Safety waited 46 feet away, but the traffic was just too fast.

Sometime before sunrise Monday, a rare Florida panther attempted to cross Interstate 4 about nine miles east of downtown Tampa. As the panther raced across the asphalt, a westbound car or truck crushed its skull. The driver did not stop.

The animal lay on the highway near Interstate 75 until about 5 a.m., when a state trooper pulled its 110-pound body out of the road and left it amid the wildflowers in the median.

The death marked the first confirmed panther sighting in Hillsborough County in 30 years. Now state wildlife officers are trying to determine where the young male panther came from.

They believe it somehow traveled 200 or so miles north from the swamps and forests of South Florida, crossing rivers and highways, dodging people and foraging for food along the way.

"He was young and healthy, really a remarkable specimen," said Mark Cunningham, the state veterinarian who examined the body. Cunningham estimated its age at 1{ to 2 years.

Some wildlife officials were stunned that the lean and tawny carcass ended up on a busy highway next to the Lazydays RV Center and across from the 800,000-square-foot Rooms to Go distribution center.

"Everybody, but everybody, was heartsick about this," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Gary Morse. Wildlife officials would like to talk to the driver who hit the panther, and promise he or she will face no criminal charges.

Although collisions with cars and trucks are the most frequent cause of death for the endangered cat, this is the first panther roadkill recorded in Hillsborough County. While state records back to 1972 have documented panthers occasionally popping up as far north as Volusia and Orange counties, this marks the northernmost panther sighting on the gulf coast.

Panthers once ruled the Southern forests from Arkansas to the Carolinas. But by the early 1990s, the species' extinction seemed inevitable. The population had dropped so low that some experts feared as few as 30 remained, all of them confined to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.

The dwindling population led to inbreeding, which left the survivors with heart murmurs and immune system problems. So state and federal wildlife officials attempted an unprecedented experiment: mixing the genes of the remaining male panthers with those of healthy female cougars from Texas.

By 2001 the breeding program had produced litters of hybrid cats free of reproductive problems. As of fall, wildlife officials estimated the panther population at 80 _ still far too few to take them off the endangered list, but apparently more than South Florida can support.

Rampant development in Lee and Collier counties, among the fastest-growing counties in Florida, has gobbled up land that once counted as prime panther habitat. Last month the National Wildlife Federation named the Florida panther the country's biggest "wildlife loser" because so much of its habitat has been turned into golf courses, vacation homes, shopping centers and university campuses.

Because of the habitat squeeze, more male panthers than ever before have been leaving their home turf and heading north, seeking territory they can call their own. One, known as Panther 62, headed north in 1998 and reached the outskirts of Walt Disney World before angling south again. In 2000 its radio collar failed and Panther 62 disappeared.

Three other panthers following Panther 62's path northward were killed by cars before they traveled very far. Another one, a cat with no radio collar, showed up in 1999 in a rural corner of Sarasota County, and apparently remains alive.

"You have to give credit to these panthers. They're doing their best to survive," said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation, a frequent critic of the government's development decisions.

The panther killed in Seffner on Monday was too young to be either Panther 62 or the Sarasota cat, said Darrell Land, a state panther expert. He and Cunningham both said the dead panther appeared to be a purebred native, not the result of cross-breeding with the Texas cougars.

Initially state wildlife officers feared the panther had been killed by poachers elsewhere and dumped on the highway. But an examination of I-4 found two splotches on the asphalt showing where it had been hit , said Lt. Dennis Parker.

To Land, the Seffner panther is a sign of how well the panther population is doing these days. The fact that it carried no radio collar suggests that perhaps 80 is too low an estimate for their numbers, and there may be others like it in what is left of the wilds of Florida.

That thought has occurred to Payton as well. If one could wind up in Hillsborough County, she said, "it makes you wonder where else they might be."

_ Times staff writer Jean Heller and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

A look at the Florida panther

DEATHS: Between 1972 and 2001, 44 panthers were killed by collisions with vehicles, the leading cause of death. Wildlife crossings and right of way fencing have been installed along more than 40 miles of roadways that cross public lands. No panthers have been killed where these structures are in place.

RANGE: Though it once roamed throughout Florida as well as much of the southeastern United States, today the panther remains only in national and state parks and nearby private lands in southwest Florida. The home range of male panthers is about 322 square miles; the home range of female panthers is about 120 square miles. Since the female's range is smaller, prey must be abundant, especially when she is raising kittens.

DIET: Eats only meat. About 90 percent of its diet consists of feral hog, white-tailed deer, raccoon and armadillo. It occasionally eats rabbits, rats, birds and,rarely, alligators.

VOCALIZATION: Usually quiet, but under some circumstances communicates through sounds that have been described as chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls and hisses. When frightened, kittens emit a series of short, high-pitched peeps.

Source: Florida Panther Net,