Discovery of dead panther|jon_downes||08/04/05 at 10:38:21|jon_downes|xx|0||Discovery of dead panther has biologists asking questions
Scripps Howard News Service
July 06, 2005

Hunters, outdoorsmen and backpackers for years have returned from treks into the swamps and brush of the South with wild-eyed stories of spotting one of the most elusive and reclusive wild cats in the United States - the Florida panther.

Well, perhaps not so wild-eyed after all.

The discovery in June of a dead panther in an area of Northeast Florida where panthers haven't been seen for 20 years is prompting wildlife biologists to reconsider the cat's territorial range, and consider the prospect that there may be more such cats in the region they don't know about.

"It's definitely a distinct possibility," said Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Parker said there have been other sightings reported elsewhere in the state. However, she said those sightings had no documentation, such as evidence of paw prints or a photograph.

But the body of a panther that officials are calling UCFP74, found on I-95 near the border separating Flagler and St. Johns counties, was unmistakably that of a 125-pound male panther that was about 3 years old. Where the panther came from, and whether there are others in the area, is now the subject of much speculation.

"UCFP" stands for "un-collared Florida panther." The cat had neither the tattoos nor the transponder chip that biologists put on the cats they monitor in the Florida Everglades - meaning it was not a panther that wildlife biologists knew about.

Parker said that about a third of Everglade panthers have been equipped with radio collars, but the rest have not been captured. It's possible, she said, the dead panther was one of those that came from the Everglades "looking for love in all the wrong places," or perhaps it had been living in the area with others.

The Florida panther - a close cousin to the cougars of the West - is the most endangered of America's big cats. From a population estimated at between 30 and 50 in the 1990s, there are today believed to be from 80 to 100 in the Everglades.

Cougars once ranged from throughout the eastern United States, from Maine to Texas. One 1880 report listed the animal as "plentiful" in southern Virginia.

However, development and hunting by farmers protecting livestock reduced the cougar's range in the East to 2 million acres in Southwest Florida. Some scientists consider the Florida panther a distinct subspecies of the Western cougar, while others consider it essentially the same animal.

Laurie Macdonald, Florida director of Defenders of Wildlife - one of several groups rallying support for panthers - said she wasn't surprised to find a panther in the northeast near developed areas.

"They are a very secretive animal, and they move quietly at night so not to be seen," she said. "We've known that these animals can move close to, and through some, settled areas."

Clay Nielsen, director of scientific research for the Cougar Network and a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, said that as cougar colonies grow, young males tend to disperse to establish new areas for the cats to colonize.

"Once you get close to carrying capacity, you see more and more dispersing," said Nielsen, who is monitoring the return of cougars in the Midwest.

Macdonald said authorities need to set aside nature reserves in the area to encourage the panther's recovery, and also limit development.

She said officials could take panthers into account when planning roads - for example, including wildlife crossover tunnels or fencing or walls to keep animals off highways. The wildlife commission says that from five to 10 panthers are killed on South Florida highways each year, and that in the last decade, 40 miles of roads through the Everglades have been built with tunnels to help save wildlife.

But cars are not the only threat to the cats.

Florida's panthers were almost driven to extinction in the last decade because of in-breeding, which produced cats with distinctive kinks in their tails and male cats that were sterile. To broaden the gene pool, the state imported cougars from Texas - a project that successfully increased the number of cats.