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FLORIDA Discovery of dead panther prompts experts' questions



Published: Sat, July 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The animal was found in a region where it had not been seen for 20 years.

SCRIPPS HOWARD

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.

New evidence

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.

Endangered cat

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.

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.

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




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