Plan to Protect Florida Panther Reopens Issue of Its Identity

A government draft plan would relocate some Florida panthers to other states.
A government draft plan would relocate some Florida panthers to other states. (By Gregory Smith -- Associated Press)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

MIAMI -- The Florida panther, the feline carnivore that roams what's left of the state's cypress swamps and other wilds, enjoys almost mythic status here.

Its image adorns license plates. The National Hockey League franchise is named for the cat. And it is, officially, the Florida state animal.

But now a new plan for saving the vaunted predator is reopening awkward questions for the animal's admirers: What, exactly, is a Florida panther?

Scientists believe there are only about 80 left in Florida. And given the shortage of habitat in the cat's rapidly developing namesake state, the draft recovery plan for the Florida panther, issued recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, proposes to export some of the predators out of state -- and names potential sites in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.

The Florida panther roamed those states long ago, wildlife biologists said, and reintroducing it there could enable it to establish populations large enough to ward off extinction.

But the proposal to expand the range of the predator, which is being met warily from officials in other states, where farmers fear attacks on livestock, is also restarting debates about whether the Florida panther, officially considered an endangered subspecies, is for all practical purposes identical to the cougar, a far more common animal that lives in much of western North America.

"I'm not even sure at this point that a Florida panther, as a subspecies, exists," said David Goad, deputy director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who opposes bringing the animal to Arkansas.

Crossbreeding between Texas cougars and Florida panthers, combined with modern genetic testing showing fewer distinctions between the two than previously believed, has led many to question the unique identity of Florida's fearsome mascot. "I think they had to do what they had to do, but it kind of clouds things," Goad said of the crossbreeding, which was initiated by wildlife officials in 1995 to eliminate the effects of inbreeding in the Florida animal.

The identity of the Florida panther -- and just how distinct it is from the cougar -- has been a matter of evolving science.

At the beginning of the 20th century, some scientists classified the Florida panther as a species. It later lost that distinction as scientists decided it was really just a subspecies, one of several in North America. It won federal protection as an endangered subspecies in 1973.

Its hold on survival since then has been tenuous at best.

The estimated population of Florida panthers dropped to as low as 30 in the early 1990s, and symptoms of inbreeding, including undescended testicles, were rife.

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