Some experts think female cats should be moved to help establish a colony in Central Florida.
For decades, Florida's remaining panther population has hunkered down in the cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks of Southwest Florida, driven into hiding in the tip of the state's peninsula.
But it's not enough. In the 1990s the panther population grew even as development wiped out thousands of acres of panther habitat.
The combination left young male panthers so little room to roam that a few left South Florida in search of new territory. One made it as far as the outskirts of Disney World.
Now some panther experts are recommending that female panthers be transplanted to the north in hopes of establishing a panther colony in Central Florida. It's the only choice if this panther population is to continue growing, explained John Kasbohm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"If you look at the landscape in South Florida, there's not much they can do there," Kasbohm said. "They're kind of hemmed in, unless we can get into Central Florida."
Panther experts will debate the proposal, and other ideas for improving the panthers' future, at a conference this month at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Their recommendations will become part of the official plan for saving the panther, to be released later this year.
Central Florida may not be such a hospitable home for panthers, said Stephen Williams, founder of the Florida Panther Society in Gainesville.
Since 1998, several panthers wearing radio collars have been tracked crossing the Caloosahatchee River in rural Hendry County and heading north. Two were then run over by cars.
Another panther, one without a collar, was run down as it tried to cross Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County in March.
"I'm not in favor of seeing a lot of cats run over just to expand the current range," Williams said.
State panther biologists are cautious as well. Given Central Florida's rapid development, any panthers moved there might quickly find themselves squeezed out again.
"I don't see any real purpose in putting cats up there if the landscape doesn't look like it would be good panther habitat 20 years from now," said Darrell Land, panther section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The panther is a symbol of wild Florida, not only as the state mammal but also as a popular license plate icon. Yet much of Florida is no longer wild enough to accommodate a predator that needs 250 square miles of forest and swamp.
"They are long-lived critters, and they demand big landscapes in which to live," Land said. "Our goal is not just to drop one cat somewhere and everybody go home and feel good about it. We want to see tens and twenties and even hundreds out there."
There has never been a documented attack by a Florida panther on a human. But Florida's early settlers feared the panther so much they killed as many as possible, nearly wiping them out.
Meanwhile, Florida's growing population gobbled up most of the wild places where panthers used to live. By the 1970s a cat that once ruled forests throughout the South had been driven to the swampy tip of the Florida peninsula.
The panther population had dropped so low that some experts feared as few as 30 remained. Inbreeding left the survivors with heart murmurs and immune system problems.
In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the only hope for saving the panther was to trap all the adults and put them in a captive breeding program. But environmental activists successfully sued to block that move.
Then panther experts decided on an extraordinary experiment. Texas cougars are the Florida panthers' closest kin. By importing a few healthy female cougars and turning them loose in panther territory, the state hoped to breed a healthier hybrid.
The cross-breeding program, launched in 1995, has been so successful that state biologists have now recaptured the remaining Texas cats and moved them to White Oak Plantation near the northeast Florida town of Yulee.
The adult panther population now numbers 87 cats, according to a report in May from Roy McBride, the trapper hired by the state wildlife agency to track the elusive cats. They occupy an area totaling nearly 3-million acres that stretches across the western part of Everglades National Park and includes Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.
They also ramble across thousands of acres of privately owned land that has over the past decade been frequently targeted for development as Southwest Florida became one of the state's fastest growing regions.
The combination of more panthers in less property can be deadly. Older male panthers do not give up territory to young males in search of mates. The leading cause of death among panthers is other panthers guarding turf.
The lack of open territory has pushed several young males to swim across the Caloosahatchee River. The first one, identified as Panther 62, crossed the river in April 1998 and ricocheted around Central Florida like a pinball for two years before its radio collar conked out and it disappeared.
Researchers at the University of Florida had recently mapped the parks, preserves and privately owned land between Fort Myers and Orlando to show how it could be strung together into a wildlife corridor for wide-ranging animals. Panther 62 followed their map as if it had a copy stapled to his collar.
While Panther 62 and the cats who followed found some places to stay north of the river, the one thing they did not find was a mate. That's why Kasbohm and others are proposing to move some females north of the river too.
"The only thing missing is the female," said Wesley Woolf of the National Wildlife Federation.
But the last time panther experts tried transplanting big predators, they ran into a major cat fight.
Although the panther population in Southwest Florida is improving, it is also facing a major risk. Any big calamity - a hurricane or a disease - could wipe out much of the population and put them on the road to extinction.
Since 1981, state and federal experts have been working on a way to get the panther off the endangered species list. One crucial goal, they decided, was to create at least one more panther population somewhere far from the state's southern tip. That way a calamity striking one population would have no effect on the others.
North Florida seemed an ideal second home. So in the mid 1990s, state officials released more than a dozen Texas cougars near Osceola National Forest to test whether an animal almost identical to the panther could make its home along the Suwannee River and Okefenokee Swamp.
By the end of the experiment, seven cougars had been killed. Two were shot with arrows, one fatally. Another was crippled by a rifle bullet and had to be destroyed. The cougars had slaughtered deer, calves, elk, hogs, a horse and one house cat that wandered outside at the wrong time. Area residents were outraged.
"It's all right to have them in the Everglades, but it's not all right to have them in our back yard," Lake City schoolteacher Colvin Carter said in 1998.
Moving panthers to expand the population "sort of assumes cooperation with the landowners there," Woolf said.
Still, Woolf, Williams and others hope a North Florida panther population will be created. Federal and state agencies have pieced together enough land in the Pinhook Swamp to connect the Osceola National Forest with the Okefenokee Swamp, creating the largest wildlife corridor east of the Mississippi.
A team of scientists has been studying possible sites for a second Florida panther population. North Florida is on the list, said Land, the state biologist. But the leading candidate is outside Florida, in Arkansas. There's only one catch, he said.
"Arkansas has gone on record saying, "No thank you,"' he said.Florida panther facts
Scientific name: Puma concolor coryi, one of more than 20 subspecies of cougar. The subspecies name comes from naturalist and hunter Charles Barney Cory, who first described the panther in 1896.
Range: The panther once lived throughout Florida as well as much of the Southeast. Today, about 87 adult panthers remain, nearly all of them confined to fast-growing Southwest Florida.
Diet: Panthers eat only meat. They are solitary hunters and might eat only once a week. About 90 percent of their diet consists of feral hogs, white-tailed deer, raccoons and armadillos. Panthers occasionally eat rabbits, rats, birds and, rarely, alligators.
Vocalization: Usually panthers are silent, but sometimes, they communicate through sounds that have been described as chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls and hisses. When frightened, kittens emit a series of short, high-pitched peeps.
- Source: Florida Panther Net, www.panther.state.fl.us