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Floridians Fight to Save Panthers

Efforts to help the official state animal include radio monitoring and captive breeding

JOGGING along in the wake of baying hounds, Deborah Jansen figures she logged more than 100 miles of bushwhacking travel last winter - through the saw grass, palmetto, and cypress strands of Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida. For all her efforts and those of the houndsmen she accompanied, however, they managed to capture only a single Florida panther - and even that was something of a surprise.

Miss Jansen is a wildlife biologist who directs Big Cypress's field efforts on behalf of the Florida Panther Recovery Program. It's intended to return a viable population of panthers to what remains of their one-time habitat - a region greatly diminished by highways, urban development, and farming.

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Only 30 to 50 of the animals remain in the wild, most wildlife specialists agree. One major activity involved in the recovery program - and the one that requires the 112-pound Jansen to frequently scramble through the thorny brush of the nation's first national preserve - involves the capture and placement of radio collars on as many of the surviving cats as possible.

In two years, only two panthers have been collared within Big Cypress's 714,000 acres of semitropical wilderness. Telemetry monitoring of these animals demonstrates that one died (of rabies) and the other has moved off to open lands to the east.

These developments are a profound disappointment to Jansen and her Big Cypress colleagues who urgently want a resident population of cats here. But on a broader basis, there is another premise that is nothing if not encouraging. It suggests that the endangered Florida panther is doing better overall than some politicians, land managers, and sectors of the popular press might have one believe.

``I won't say that we have a viable wild population of Florida panthers,'' says Buck Thackeray, who oversees the preserve's Natural Resources Management Program. ``But we can say that there are panthers in the wild here in south Florida, that they're reproducing, that there are young entering the population, and that they seem to be healthy.''

Like the grizzly bear of Yellowstone National Park, the California condor, the blackfooted ferret, and a few other species, the Florida panther is the focus of an effort that has caught the attention of environmentalists, hunters, wildlife biologists, politicians, and others.

Mystique and media attention are largely responsible for official and public fascination with the panther. This tawny, lithe animal is of high intelligence, has long been the stuff of folklore, and is the largest surviving predator of the southeastern United States.

``Just consider,'' says biologist Sonny Bass of neighboring Everglades National Park, ``that for 200 years there was an active campaign to eradicate them. And in spite of that, for a few of them to still live in the wild here in eastern North America. That's pretty remarkable!''

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The panther was a bounty animal as late as 1958. (Hunters were paid for each one killed.) It was later placed on the first federal endangered species list, and became Florida's official state animal in 1982 - the same year the recovery program was launched jointly by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, and the National Park Service.

These agencies administer more than 2 million acres of contiguous area that includes one state preserve, a national refuge, Everglades National Park, state conservation lands, and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Despite the impressive dimensions of these public lands, the cats by and large prefer other haunts. A majority of the surviving panthers appear to reside in and circulate on private land north of busy Alligator Alley (State Route 84).

Biologists say those places have less traffic, fewer intrusions, and fewer survival threats to the panther, while offering even more prey than the public lands to the south.

``The factors most critical to the panther in habitat selection appear to be solitude and prey base,'' says Jansen. The private lands, she says, support generous numbers of deer, raccoon, wild hogs, rabbits, and other small game - and these lands are much less frequented by recreationists.

There are substantial wildlife populations in Big Cypress National Preserve as well. But when it was established by Congress in 1974, the legislation explicitly provided for seasonal hunting, for oil and gas leasing and production, and for such recreational uses as off-road vehicles, including airboats, all-terrain vehicles and balloon-tired buggies that barge through otherwise impassable bogs and marsh areas. Some 2,000 of these motor vehicles are licensed to operate in the preserve.

None of these activities is allowed in Everglades National Park. That area hosts a resident (and modestly thriving) population of panthers - four adults and one kitten, at last count.

Hunters take 150 to 200 deer and some 125 wild hogs through Big Cypress game-check stations each year, and it's likely that far more than that are never counted. That toll significantly diminishes the panther's prey base within the preserve and further lessens the area's potential as a preferred habitat, say some conservationists.

So influential is the hunting and recreation-vehicle lobby in south Florida that any move toward restrictions brings intense political wrath on elected officials and public land managers.

There is some concern that the four-laning of the east-west Alligator Alley across the northern tip of Big Cypress constitutes a barrier that will block the panther's migration routes southward to take up residence in the preserve. To avoid that prospect, the Florida Department of Transportation is building 36 underpasses or special structures to permit safe passage to wildlife along a 40-mile segment of the future interstate, at a cost of $25 million. To exclude panthers and other game from the hazards of road traffic, it will also build a 10-foot-high chain link fence, topped by 2-foot strands of barbed wire, at an additional cost of $4.5 million.

For 10 years, the agencies participating in the Florida Panther Recovery Program have engaged in the capture and radio telemetry monitoring of the cats. Thus far, 42 animals have been collared and released to the wild. Of those, 22 are known to survive. The remainder have died of natural causes or been killed - by traffic, by poaching, by conflict with other panthers, or by rabies, mercury poisoning, or infection.

By monitoring the collared animals' locations and movements daily from aircraft, biologists can establish when they have taken prey (typically, cats stay on a kill site for two to five days, depending upon the abundance and size of their prey), when and where they mate, and with whom. They can determine the energy requirements of an individual animal, its nutrition, and its general condition. They can also establish how large the litter and, by later collaring the growing kittens, they can track their movements and progress.

A captive breeding program will be undertaken soon in four selected zoos in Florida, with most of the offspring to be returned to the wild. By selecting pairs that are furthest removed genetically, the program sponsors hope to restore greater vigor and genetic diversity to the species and to further enhance its prospects of full recovery.

Meanwhile, Big Cypress National Preserve entertains the annual waves of hunters and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, and awaits the time when it may yet become an attractive refuge for the Florida panther.

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