- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials on Friday said they have no intention of seeking to remove the Florida panther from the endangered species list or changing any protections.

But the officials also said they believe it’s time to rethink some of the criteria set by federal officials about what it would take for the panther to be taken off the list and what the state agency’s responsibilities are.

Chief among those is loosening a requirement for Florida officials to establish panther populations outside of southwest Florida, where they are concentrated currently, according to a revision of a draft policy paper that will be voted on by commissioners in September.

“Panther recovery is moving into a different chapter,” said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, during a telephone call Friday with reporters to discuss changes to the policy paper.

Florida’s panther population has been growing during the past 20 years and stands as high as 180 adults. The Florida panther was listed as endangered in 1967, when the population was as low as 30 animals

The original draft of the policy paper was presented to commissioners last June but was tabled until September so agency staffers could provide more input.

The new draft removes language that said current panther populations were “straining and currently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region” as evidenced by the killing of livestock on ranches and crashes with cars on roadways.

“Maintaining broad public support for panther conservation is very important,” said Kipp Frohlich, a deputy director of the Florida wildlife agency. “Part of maintaining broad public support is recognizing when you have wildlife conflicts. With our success, and there’s more panthers, the reality is in recent years you’ve had more conflicts.”

The new draft emphasizes the need to restore and protect panther habitats in southwest Florida, rather than establish new populations outside the area. The current criteria set by federal officials require establishing two populations of at least 240 panthers outside southwest Florida. Federal wildlife officials should take the lead on that rather than Florida wildlife officials, according to the revised paper.

Federal wildlife officials already are reviewing the criteria for panthers, but Florida wildlife officials said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have a greater sense of urgency, Florida officials said.

“We will be supportive, but we really need them to provide more resources, more support, more focus on moving this forward,” Wiley said.

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