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  1. The Buzz

More than 20,000 people commented on the endangered status of the Florida panther

Rep. Vern Buchanan and Sen. Bill Nelson among those saying keep it protected.

More than 20,000 people gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service an earful about the future status of the endangered Florida panther, the agency’s top panther biologist said Thursday.

The panther, which has been listed as endangered since the first endangered list was published in 1967, has been Florida’s official state animal since 1982. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is supposed to review the status of every animal on the endangered list every five years, announced in July that it was planning a review for the panther and wanted public comments by Aug. 29.

The public obliged in droves, according to David Shindle, the agency’s panther coordinator., who said he’d received ”well over 20,000 ” letters and e-mails by Wednesday’s deadline.

“As expected, this animal generated a lot of interest,” he said.

Some of the letters and e-mails came from scientists and environmental activists, he said. Others came from less credentialed but still enthusiastic groups.

“I‘m sitting here looking at a stack of paintings and drawings from an art class at Bellview Santos Elementary School” from the North Florida community of Bellview, Shindle said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, both sent letters urging the federal agency to keep the panther on the endangered list. 

”It is essential to maintain current federal protections to prevent one of the world’s rarest cats from becoming extinct,” Buchanan wrote. 

“Some good progress has been made” on saving the panther, Nelson wrote in his letter to Interior Secretary Ryan ZInke. “Unfortunately, many of the original threats to the panther’s survival continue to pose a threat today.”

While federal officials called the review ”routine,” at least one aspect of it will be unlike any previous panther review -- a look at panther taxonomy, meaning its scientific classification. 

“One of the most interesting things we’re going to review is the taxonomy,” S Williams said Monday. Questions have been raised for years about whether the Florida panther is really a distinct sub-species of the pumas found out West, and thus deserving of legal protection.. In 2000, a team of four scientists led by an expert named Melanie Culver published a paper that said genetics show that all the pumas in North America are one species, period. Because pumas are fairly common, that would mean panthers might no longer be considered endangered.

However, Culver told the Times/Herald last month that she believes panthers still deserve endangered species list protection because they’re geographically isolated.

The wildlife agency’s review will now begin in earnest, Shindle said, adding that ”we’d like to be wrapped up by the summer of 2019.” Any recommendation would go to the agency’s director for action -- either to maintain the endangered status or to change it. If the recommendation is to change it, Shindle said, that will kick off a new process, which would require more public comments.