Among the most endangered species on the planet, the Florida panther may soon become a novelty seen only in captivity. The big cats once roamed by the thousands throughout the Southeastern U.S., but as development encroaches on their only remaining habitat in southwest Florida, extinction may be certain. It's the last of the puma population east of the Mississippi River.
"The way we're building, we're going to push the panthers out. They're going to lose. My big concern is the panther will become a zoo relic," said Richardson, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scientists estimate there are up to 100 panthers in Florida, up from nearly 30 two decades ago, most roaming on about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and several surrounding state preserves. Scientists are now seeing more human-panther encounters and livestock kills as urban sprawl pushes further into their habitat.
But scientists say the population increase is misleading and long-term prospects aren't good for the panther. Richardson and others are convinced their years of work may be in vain as development eats up more of their remaining habitat.
"If we build out even half the potential of what the state says we can, forget about the panthers," he said. "And if we don't care, then eventually away goes our panthers. But this is also where our ground water recharges. This is where our clean air is made. It's not just about panthers."
As with all dilemmas that pit man against nature, there is an alternate reality, a fear that by protecting the panthers, people are put at risk.
"I personally want humans to stay on top of the food chain," said Barbara Jean Powell, of the Everglades Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of sportsmen associations that strongly supports private property rights, reports AP.
Wildlife officials recently held a town hall meeting in Collier County near Naples, prime panther country and a development gold mine, to educate people about living among predators, including trimming scrub from property to remove food sources and hiding spots.
It also means being wary at dusk and dawn when the big cats typically feed even though there has never been a documented attack on a human in Florida.
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