Conservation groups filed a "scientific petition'' Thursday to reintroduce the endangered Florida panther into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a move that could establish a population in south Georgia and north Florida and help the species recover.
The petition asks that the Interior Department issue a rule authorizing the release of panthers taken from the only breeding population, 100 to 120 panthers south of the Caloosahatchee River in South Florida, said Michael Robinson, who authored the petition for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Biodiversity.
That population is "bumping up against the constraints of habitat destruction,'' Robinson said during a telephone interview from Silver City, N.M., and if the Florida panther has any long-range chance of survival it needs more than one population.
"You can't ensure a species won't go extinct when it's all in one location and there's some sort of catastrophe, such as disease,'' he said.
"The Okefenokee was the top rated area to establish another population,'' he said referring to the findings of the third and most recent revision of the Florida Panther Recovery Plan which was first released in the early 1980s.
The refuge has 400,000 acres of its own under protection and is surrounded by other undeveloped land with an abundance of deer and feral hogs for prey, including Pinhook Swamp across the Florida border. If Florida Panthers are released in the Okefenokee, they would likely roam into both states as the big cats establish their territory, Robinson said.
The study shows the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas is the second best rated area for a release.
The plan calls for the establishment of two populations of about 240 cats each and both areas would support that, Robinson said.
Arthur Webster, a spokesman for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, said he had not seen the petition and could not comment without speaking with the refuge biologist.
The agency's Atlanta office could not be reached for comment.
Robinson said he cited that study and others in the petition and that it would take at least three years to carry out after the date the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides to carry out the plan.
"It's a lot more than moving animals,'' he said.
Part of the rule-making process would include a series of public hearings, Robinson said.
It would not be the first time panthers were released in the refuge. A few years ago, some Texas cougars outfitted with radio transmitters were released into the swamp and moved around freely. Poachers shot one when it roamed from the refuge, the survivors were picked up and the experiment found to be a success.
Robinson said that experiment helps justify carrying out the reintroduction.
The plan is endorsed by the Florida Panther Society Inc., the Cougar Rewilding Foundation and One More Generation, a conservation group founded in Fayetteville, Ga., by brother and sister Carter, 9, and Olivia Ries, 8.
"Our network of children wishes to ensure that all endangered species survive at least one more generation and beyond,'' Jim Ries, the children's father, said in a news release. "To grant them that simple, unstinting wish, we believe Georgians can learn to safely share the wildest corners of our state with Florida panthers.''
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