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Federal officials to review endangered status of Florida panther

Published Jul. 4, 2017

Four months after federal officials declared manatees are no longer endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it's now reviewing the endangered status of the Florida panther.

The panther, Florida's state animal, has been on the endangered list since the list was first drawn up in 1967.

Federal rules require the agency to review the status of each endangered or threatened species every five years, and it's time for that routine review, explained Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But at least one aspect of the review won't be routine at all.

"One of the most interesting things we're going to review is the taxonomy," 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.

The questions took a different turn after 1995, when state officials tried an unprecedented experiment to save the panther from inbreeding and genetic defects by bringing in eight female mountain lions from Texas to breed with them.

The cross-breeding saved the panthers, and sparked a baby boom. The panther population, estimated to number no more than 20 to 30 in the mid-1990s, now is estimated at around 200.

But there are Floridians who do not believe the scientists who say the animals now prowling the South Florida wilderness are still Florida panthers. Meanwhile others insist that even if they are, they aren't anything special and probably should be managed by allowing hunting.

In 2000, Williams noted, 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.

"Obviously, people who want (endangered species) restrictions lifted have latched onto that," said Elizabeth Fleming of the Defenders of Wildlife Florida office in St. Petersburg.

But she said other experts disagree with the findings of the Culver study. She contended there are physical differences, such as the shape of the skull and the thickness of the fur, that mark the Florida panther as distinct.

The fact that this review is being done by an agency under the Trump Administration, though, makes Fleming concerned.

When it comes to environmental issues, she said, "everything undertaken by the Trump Administration gives me pause."

Williams refused to speculate on whether the five-year review could lead to a decision to change the panthers' status similar to the decision his agency made about manatees. In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was downgrading manatees from endangered to merely threatened. The controversial move was opposed by most of the people who submitted comments in writing and in public hearings, as well as scientists invited to review it.

As with the manatee, the Fish and Wildlife Service is asking the public for information about panthers. The deadline for submitting comments is Aug. 29.

Last year brought a mix of bad and good news for panthers, which for decades had been largely isolated to habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers. Occasionally male panthers would cross the river looking for mates that didn't exist. Last year, for the first time ever, biologists spotted females and kittens north of the river, proving the animals were expanding their range.

But last year was also the year that drivers set a record for running over the big cats on the state's highways.

In 2012, a new record for road kills was set with 19. Two years later, in 2014, that record was broken and a new one established at 25 kills. In 2015, that record was shattered when 30 were killed. Then came 2016, with 32 run over on the highways.

The total number of panther deaths, 42 from road kills and other causes, tied 2015.

Panthers, sometimes known among Florida's settlers as "lions" and "catamounts," were a terror of the early frontier for attacks on livestock and pets. By 1981, though, schoolchildren had picked the panther as the state animal choosing it over the alligator, the manatee, the Key deer and a few others that got write-in votes, such as the dolphin and the baboon.

They've proven so popular that the cats have become the mascot for dozens of schools, the namesake of the National Hockey League team in South Florida and a figure on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, sold to cover the costs for the state wildlife commission's panther research.

The wide-ranging predators have lost habitat in South Florida not just to suburban sprawl, but also to the creation of Florida Gulf Coast University and the town of Ave Maria. But Williams said the discovery of breeding cats north of the Caloosahatchee shows they now have much more potential habitat available to them than ever before.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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