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Arkansas Isn't Wild About Panther Proposal

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The government is working on a plan to bring back the Florida panther. Not the pro-Hockey team, the endangered cat.

Panthers once roamed much of the southeastern United States. Today, fewer than 100 live in a protected south Florida preserve. The Fish and Wildlife Service has released the draft of the plan to expand their habitat. Possible sights include the Georgia-Florida border, and the interior highlands of Arkansas.

State wildlife officials are at odds over the idea. From member station KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Jacqueline Froelich reports.

JACQUELINE FROELICH reporting:

Before they were erased by bounty hunters and loggers in the early 20th century, Florida panthers prowled Arkansas's bayous and mountains. Deep in the Ozarks, U.S.D.A. Forest Service biologist Joe Neal treks through former panther habitat.

The trail leads high up to a ridge of immense limestone boulders collapsed into caves and crevasses.

Mr. JOE NEAL (biologist, U.S.D.A. Forest Service): And I assume that places like that would be ideal for panthers, because there would be places they could den, places where they could raise young, and the big rock ledges that are exposed to the sunlight would be perfect for sunning.

FROELICH: The Ozark and Washtaw National Forests cover 2.6 million acres in Arkansas. According to a federal draft proposal, this remote wilderness could be a perfect place for the panthers to live.

Back in 1980, there were fewer than 30. Now, as many as 100 panthers live in a protected habitat near Orlando. But encroaching development in south Florida is crowding that habitat, so U.S. Fish and Wildlife managers say its time to expand their range.

Panther recovery team member Paul Souza is a deputy field supervisor in the south Florida division.

Mr. PAUL SOUZA (Fish and Wildlife Service): The Ozarks was one of the locations that was identified in looking at potential habitat areas that could potentially support a panther population. But truly, my feeling is, without public support, reintroduction efforts would not be successful.

FROELICH: Such public support would have to come from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Deputy Director David Goad says when the Panther Recovery Team approaches them for an opinion, they'll object to the plan.

Mr. DAVID GOAD (Arkansas Game and Fish Commission): Well, I promise it don't look all that good. It does not. I mean, I hate it, I hate that we live in that kind of a world.

You know, a hundred years ago, or maybe even 50 years ago, it might not have been that big an issue. It might've could've pulled it off. But you hear the horror stories out in California about the mountain lions that are snatching folks off the bike paths.

FROELICH: Since 1994, there's been four documented fatal mountain lion attacks in California. However, scientists say the eastern panther is a different breed of cat. It's smaller than the western mountain lion, has reddish-gray fur, and does not prey on humans.

Darrell Land is a panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Mr. DARRELL LAND (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission): Florida panthers prey primarily on two large critters down here: white-tailed deer, and feral hogs.

FROELICH: Feral hogs are scarce in Arkansas, but white-tailed deer are not. Forest Service manager Joe Neal.

Mr. NEAL: Biologists almost always favor restoring predator populations because the predators help keep populations healthy.

FROELICH: While Florida panthers don't like chickens, on rare occasions they have been known to prey on livestock. This has Arkansas farmers worried. Arkansas Farm Bureau is opposed to bringing the panther back. Jim Kester is their spokesperson.

Mr. JIM KESTER (Arkansas Farm Bureau): You know, beef producers, any of the livestock, the sheep, goats, we have a lot of goat population here in Arkansas, any small animal breeder, I think, would be concerned about that.

FROELICH: Farmers here are also concerned about the western mountain lion now making its way east. And every year abandoned pet mountain lions are captured in Arkansas. Most are brought here to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, near Eureka Springs.

(Soundbite of panther kittens)

FROELICH: These plump, contented cougars are first-cousins to the Florida panthers, and refuge zoologist Emily McCormick says the panthers would easily adapt in the Arkansas highlands.

Ms. EMILY MCCORMICK (zoologist, Arkansas): They're secretive, and I don't think they want to be seen themselves. So, I think they would survive fine.

FROELICH: And that's what Arkansas wildlife biologists will discuss with Arkansas game officials this May when they meet to talk about bringing back the Florida panther.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.