USFWS announces review of the Florida Panther’s endangered status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is reviewing the endangered status of the Florida panther.

The panther, Florida’s state animal, has been on the endangered list since the list was first enacted in 1967. Federal rules require the agency to review the status of each endangered or threatened species every five years, and it’s time for that routine review, explained Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The the Tampa Bay Times reports.

But at least one aspect of the review won’t be routine at all. “One of the most interesting things we’re going to review is the taxonomy,” Williams said.

Questions have been raised for years about whether the Florida panther is really a distinct sub-species of the pumas found out West, and thus deserving of legal protection. The questions took a different turn after 1995, when state officials tried an unprecedented experiment to save the panther from inbreeding and genetic defects by bringing in eight female mountain lions from Texas to breed with them. The cross-breeding saved the panthers, and sparked a baby boom. The panther population, estimated to number no more than 20 to 30 in the mid-1990s, now is estimated at around 200.

But there are Floridians who do not believe the scientists who say the animals now prowling the South Florida wilderness are still Florida panthers. Meanwhile others insist that even if they are, they aren’t anything special and probably should be managed by allowing hunting.

In 2000, Williams noted, a team of four scientists led by expert Melanie Culver published a paper that said genetics show that all the pumas in North America are one species, period. Because pumas are fairly common, that would mean panthers might no longer be considered endangered. “Obviously, people who want (endangered species) restrictions lifted have latched onto that,” said Elizabeth Fleming of the Defenders of Wildlife Florida office in St. Petersburg. But she said other experts disagree with the findings of the Culver study.

She contends there are physical differences, such as the shape of the skull and the thickness of the fur, that mark the Florida panther as distinct. The fact that this review is being done by an agency under the Trump Administration, though, makes Fleming concerned. When it comes to environmental issues, she said, “everything undertaken by the Trump Administration gives me pause.”

Last year brought a mix of bad and good news for panthers, which for decades had been largely isolated to habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments for consideration in their review of Florida panthers until August 29, 2017. Federal Register notice for public comment.
Send comments to David Shindle, Biologist:
South Florida Ecological Services Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 12085 State Road 29 S, Immokalee, FL 34142
Email: david_shindle@fws.gov or Fax: (772) 562–4288.
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From the Journal of the WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society:
Why Not the Best? How Science Failed the Florida Panther” and
Florida Panther Update: How are they doing now?

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