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Officials Ponder Return of the Panther

  • Jacqueline Froelich

Florida panthers once roamed much of the southeastern United States. Today, fewer than a hundred live in a protected South Florida preserve. But this subspecies of the American mountain lion has now outgrown that habitat. So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft plan to reintroduce the endangered cat to its historic range… including wilderness areas in Alabama, Mississippi and the interior highlands of Arkansas. But wildlife officials in Arkansas are at odds about bringing the panther back.

Before they were exterminated by bounty hunters and loggers in the early 20th century, Florida panthers prowled Arkansas's bayous and mountains. Today, deep in the Ozarks National Forest, USDA Forest Service biologist Joe Neal explores the historic panther habitat. He surveys the trail that leads high up to a ridge of immense limestone boulders, collapsed into crevices and caves. "I assume places like that would be ideal for panthers," he explains, "because there would be places they could den, places they could raise young and the big ledges exposed to the sunlight would be perfect for sunning."

And that's why federal wildlife officials have included the one point two million hectare Ozark and Ouachita National Forests in their Panther Recovery Plan. The proposal calls for establishing at least two separate populations, which would grow to 240 animals over two generations, by 2020.

The remaining small group of Florida panthers in the protected habitat near Orlando is threatened by the region's sprawling development, as well as by inbreeding. Some of the animals have been hit by cars and killed. So U.S. Fish and Wildlife managers say it's time to expand their range.

"The Ozarks was one of the locations identified in looking at potential habitat areas that could potentially support a panther population," says Paul Souza, a member of the government's Panther Recovery Team. "But truly my feeling is that without public support the reintroduction efforts would not be successful."

Such public support would have to come from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The agency is known worldwide for successfully reintroducing black bears in the state. But Deputy Director David Goad says when the Panther Recovery Team approaches them for an opinion, they will object to the plan. "I promise you it don't look all that good. It does not." He shakes his head sadly. "I hate it. I hate that we live in that kind of a world. You know, 100 years ago, 50 years ago it might not have been that big of an issue. We might've could've pulled it off. But you hear the horror stories in California about the mountain lions that are snatching folks off the bike paths."

Since 1994, there have been four documented fatal mountain lion attacks in California. In one highly publicized assault, a mountain lion killed and ate a man who was riding his bike in the mountains south of Los Angeles. That same cat later attacked a woman cyclist but her friends saved her. Just this month, a cougar attacked a 7-year-old boy who was hiking with his family on a trail in Colorado. Family members drove the animal away by throwing rocks and sticks at it.

However, scientists say the Eastern, or Florida panther is a different breed of cat. It's smaller than the Western mountain lion, has reddish grey fur and, says Florida state biologist Darrell Land, has never attacked people. "Florida panthers prey primarily on two large critters down here, white tail deer and feral hogs."

Wild pigs are scarce in Arkansas, but white tail deer are overly abundant. Forest Service Manager, Joe Neal, says panthers could keep them in check… an important reason to support their return. "Biologists almost always favor restoring predator populations because predators help keep populations healthy," he says.

While Florida panthers don't like chicken, on rare occasions they have been known to prey on other livestock. This has Arkansas farmers worried… and, as spokesman Jim Kester explains, that's why the Arkansas Farm Bureau is opposed to bringing the panther back. "Beef producers, any of the livestock, the sheep, goats, we have a lot of goat populations in Arkansas, any small animal breeder would be concerned about that."

Farmers here are also worried about the Western panther, which has been expanding its range eastward. And every year, pet mountain lions - which are legal to keep in Arkansas - are abandoned. Some are captured and brought here to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge near Eureka Springs.

These plump contented cougars are first cousins to the Florida panthers. Refuge zoologist Emily McCormack says the panthers would easily adapt in the Arkansas highlands. "They are secretive and I think they don't want to be seen themselves so I think they would survive fine."

Florida Panther survival in Arkansas will be discussed at a May meeting of the Game and Fish Commission and state wildlife officials. But because the Commission is resisting the plan, chances are slim the cat will come home.