FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Vicki M. Boatwright or February 27, 1997 Diana M. Hawkins CAPTIVE-REARED FLORIDA PANTHERS RELEASED TO THE WILD
State and Federal wildlife biologists in Florida recently completed another small but significant step in their efforts to save the Florida panther from extinction.
Two 120-pound male panthers reared in captivity were released January 30, 1997, into the Big Cypress National Preserve as part of a genetic restoration program to give the endangered cat population a fighting chance for survival.
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have jointly developed and implemented the Florida Panther Recovery Plan.
According to the Service's Southeast Regional Director, Noreen K. Clough, the plan includes the reintroduction of genetic material from a related subspecies, the Texas cougar, to help revitalize the panther breeding population. "The goal is to stop the decline of the panther's genetic health caused by its isolation and inbreeding," Clough said.
The lion of the Americas, felis concolor, is also known as the mountain lion, catamount, puma, cougar, and panther. It is the widest-ranging mammal in the western hemisphere. Geographic boundaries, however, have served to separate populations and develop variations in body size, skeletal features and pelage. The species has, therefore, been divided into many subspecies -- some experts say as many as 30.
Felis concolor coryi, the Florida panther, is a subspecies that once roamed throughout the southeastern United States. Mistakenly perceived as a threat to humans, livestock, and game animals, the panther was persecuted and hunted to near extinction by the turn of the century. What remained of their number by the late 1970s was found to exist in southern Florida. The animal was added to the Federal list of endangered species in 1967.
According to Dennis Jordan, the Service's Florida panther recovery coordinator, the small remaining population of these cats can be found in the Big Cypress Swamp and the adjoining Everglades region of south Florida.
"There are eighteen panthers and seven Texas cougars fitted with radio-transmitter collars," Jordan said, adding that not all the cats are radio-instrumented. "The guess is that there are probably 30 to 50 adults in the wild population, but no one knows for sure," he said, noting that it is impossible for wildlife officials to capture all the animals to fit them with radio collars. Although the small population has been fairly stable in terms of the number of animals, wildlife biologists are concerned that the species is fast losing its genetic health due to inbreeding that appears to be causing heart defects, possible immune deficiencies and other physiological and reproductive problems.
As a possible solution, eight female Texas cougars were captured in the wild and brought to south Florida, where they were released in 1995, Jordan said. He noted that since the release, one of the Texas female cats has been run over and killed. The Texas cats were released in Florida to breed with male Florida panthers and produce offspring that will replace some of the population's viability and diversity that has been lost through genetic erosion.
Five litters of kittens have been produced so far, but experts agree that it's probably going to take two or three generations before geneticists can tell whether or not the effort has been successful.
"Genetic restoration is on the cutting edge of endangered species restoration," Clough says. "If we're successful in terms of correcting and improving some of the panther's health issues, then we will have healthy animals to work with in rebuilding the population," she said.
According to Jordan, there are two other key factors that also affect the panther population: deaths caused by animals being struck by vehicles on the highways and battles between males fighting over territory. Of documented panther deaths that have occurred during the past 10 years, one-third were caused by highway accidents; one-third resulted from aggression between males, with the remaining deaths being attributed either to disease and infection or to unknown causes. To help with the cat-vs-vehicle part of the problem, wildlife "underpasses" have been incorporated into the construction of Interstate 75, but because panther habitat is limited in south Florida, the territory problem will likely continue, Jordan said.
"The goal of the recovery plan is to achieve a minimum of three geographically separate populations," Clough said. "Since the south Florida population is the only one that still exists, the Service and its partner-agencies will be looking for two other areas to reestablish populations," she said, noting that an area in north Florida had been studied and determined to be biologically suitable for establishing a panther population.
As part of an experimental reintroduction feasibility study, carried out by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, Texas cougars were released into a site located in north Florida and south Georgia. Jordan said the Texas cats were radio- instrumented and were released in 1993 into a large area between Florida's Osceola National Forest and Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The area is within the Florida panther's historic range.
The cougars were monitored for about two-and-a-half years and in June 1995, wildlife officials determined that the site could biologically support a population of cats, and they were removed from the study area. Clough says that the cats did very well in the area, but noted that there were some sociological issues that will need to be addressed before the Service and its partners can actually move forward to establish a panther population there. She points out that human reactions and attitudes toward the animal affects its future as much now as they did in the past.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans to this continent, panthers lived harmoniously throughout the South, where they were respected as hunters by native Americans. By the 1800s, the pressure of human populations and hunting began to take its toll. In Florida, the abuse of wild game was beginning to be recognized as early as 1828. That year, the state's first regulation governing deer harvest was passed prohibiting night hunting with burning torches. Effective control of hunting was not brought about until after the passage of the Lacey Act of 1900, a piece of legislation that has, today, become a vital tool in efforts to control smuggling and trade in illegally taken fish and wildlife.
Between 1940 and 1943, a renewed assault on deer populations, a major prey resource for the panther, was undertaken in an effort to eradicate Texas cattle fever because cattlemen believed that deer contributed to the spreading of this disease. Along with increasing land development in subsequent years, the Florida panther was relentlessly forced into a smaller and less productive range.
Today, overall support for the Florida panther from the public has been outstanding, Clough says. She adds, however, that there are a few groups who oppose the panther reintroduction and the Service and its partners are continuing to work closely with them to reconcile any lingering problems.
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