Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Okefenokee Could Be Home for Panthers; It Won't Happen Soon, but Researchers Think Ahead

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Okefenokee Could Be Home for Panthers; It Won't Happen Soon, but Researchers Think Ahead

Article excerpt

Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

Parts of North Florida and Southeast Georgia could someday become home for endangered Florida panthers, a federal report released this month shows.

The report does not reflect any government plan to introduce the animals into this area; they are now clustered in a few counties west of the Everglades. But it shows that researchers and activists concerned with the animal's future continue to view the area around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a strong choice for new habitat that will be needed if the panther population rebounds.

"Osceola National Forest and Okefenokee. ... This is where cats can make it," said Stephen Williams, president of the Gainesville-based Florida Panther Society.

The report, which Williams helped develop, updates the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's plan for increasing the panther population.

As the report was being written, Fish & Wildlife received suggestions from 17 people recommending creation of a "panther corridor" out of South Florida, reaching as far as Southeast Georgia.

PRIOR EXPERIMENT CITED

An experiment that involved moving panthers and Texas cougars into rural areas near Lake City in the 1990s sparked objections from farmers and others concerned about protecting livestock. But the new report lists that experiment's outcome as evidence the big cats could live successfully in the area's swampy forests.

Panthers needed less hunting territory in North Florida, apparently because food was easy to come by, the report says. And it says a 2006 study to find viable new sites for the cats named the area near the Okefenokee as a possibility.

Indeed, the potential for housing the cats is listed as a unique feature in the Okefenokee's application to be named as a world heritage site.

ANIMAL MAKES COMEBACK

There are about 100 panthers in Southwest Florida now, a dramatic rebound from the 30 or so that were known in the mid-'90s, said Paul Souza, a Fish & Wildlife field supervisor dealing with panther issues. …

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