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Call for More FL Panther Habitat During America's Great Outdoors Tour

August 26, 2010

ORLANDO, Fla. - More room to roam for the endangered Florida panther is the goal of a petition being delivered to the U.S. Department of the Interior during the "America's Great Outdoors" listening session in Orlando today. The proposal would use money from oil drilling royalties in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to expand the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge by as much as 50,000 acres. Several nearby landowners are willing to either sell or lease the needed land.

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), one of the groups submitting the petition, says expanding the 26,000-acre refuge would expedite the protection and recovery of the panther.

"We have a case where we have high-quality habitat and a number of major landowners who are willing sellers. We have an opportunity here to protect one of America's most endangered mammals and protect a whole host of habitats."

Fuller notes panther habitat has been increasingly threatened by development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released research indicating the most crucial and vulnerable panther habitats are in Collier and Hendry counties. He calls the Florida panther an "umbrella species," meaning that protecting its habitat protects more than just panthers.

"If you protect panther habitat, you protect habitat for bears, a whole host of other creatures. You also protect places where people can enjoy nature, bird watch, hunt, fish."

The FWF has been working with many of these landowners for about a decade to provide conservation efforts without land acquisition, but Fuller believes it's time for the next step.

"There's a variety of techniques, but you've got to use every tool in the conservation toolkit."

About 100 Florida panthers are known to live in the wild, and the species has been on the endangered list since the 1970s.

The tour listening session is 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., Osceola Heritage Park Exhibition Building, 1901 Chief Osceola Trail, Orlando.

Gina Presson /Deb Courson, Public News Service - FL