SARASOTA, Florida (AP) - The battle to save the Florida panther from extinction is poised to shift from south to central Florida, where a clash between private landowners, developers and regulators could determine the future range of the unique cats.
Efforts to expand the panthers' population across Florida's southern tip have been so successful that wildlife experts now believe they are reaching the habitat limits there. An increase in panthers killed in territorial battles and collisions with vehicles, as well as more cows and other animals killed by panthers, point to a rise in numbers.
As a result, state and federal officials are discussing moving some female panthers farther north to give them more room, rather than waiting for them to spread there on their own.
But the idea is controversial because of concerns that there is not enough vacant land, raising the specter of conflicts between subdivisions, livestock farmers and the panthers over territory.
At least one Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official doubts whether available land north of the Caloosahatchee River - including parts of Sarasota County - can support panthers in the numbers that federal officials contemplate.
"You have no large pieces of property north of the Caloosahatchee that comes close to what you have in South Florida," said FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy, referring to the federal government's panther plan.
Priddy, appointed in January by Gov. Rick Scott, raises cattle in South Florida where roughly one-third of her calves have been attacked by panthers.
She said the federal government should develop a plan to compensate livestock growers for loss of their animals as the panther population expands.
Wildlife officials overcame significant controversies in the 1990s, as plans proceeded to introduce genetic variability into the panther population.
But the question is whether that success can be replicated as the animals' range expands. A new clash between people and the panthers in another part of Florida could be inevitable.
Even if officials decide not to move any panthers, a female is likely to move north on her own eventually, they contend.
"Sooner or later it's going to happen," said Kipp Frolich, endangered species section leader for the FWC.
The Florida panther is a critically endangered subspecies unique to the state that is slowly recovering from a brush with extinction 15 years ago. The population remains under continuous threat, with three panthers dying in recent weeks on Collier County roads and 19 dead so far this year.
As many as 160 of the animals at or near breeding age are in the wild today - mostly in South Florida, according to the latest state estimates. While that is a vast improvement from 1994, when the panther population hovered around 30 animals, it is far from stable.
Panthers need to form at least three separate populations of about 240 individuals to escape the danger of extinction.
Several male Florida panthers have ventured north of the Caloosahatchee River in South Florida since 1998, but no females have been documented there.
While state wildlife managers hope a female already is prowling farther north, they are discussing with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whether to intervene to make sure they expand their range.
Federal officials would have to issue permits to move a panther from South Florida. No timetable has been set for introducing panthers farther north.
"The commission has asked us to discuss with them options for moving females north of the river and efforts to try to grow the population north of the river," said Larry Williams, field supervisor for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service office in Vero Beach.
Panthers have occasionally been spotted in Sarasota County. A state scientist saw one near Myakka River State Park two years ago. A plaster cast of a paw print confirmed its identity.
The recovery plan identifies scattered large patches of land considered suitable for panther habitat north of the Caloosahatchee. Most of it is agricultural or conservation land, such as state parks, including properties in the eastern portions Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Williams said wildlife officials plan to discuss the matter soon with citrus growers who own vast acreage in Central Florida, where panthers may eventually roam.
The state is asking the public to help document panthers north of the river. They want people to use wildlife cameras and trail cameras to capture panther photos, with the ultimate goal of photographing a female.
The effort includes a websiteon which the public can upload panther photos and provide details on sightings. It also helps raise awareness that panthers may eventually become common neighbors.
Panthers suffered from severe inbreeding that interfered with their ability to survive and reproduce the last time wildlife officials considered a big change in their panther recovery strategy.
Eight Texas cougar females were introduced into a population of about 30 to 50 panthers to combat the inbreeding. Florida Panthers historically bred with Texas cougars in the northern part of their range, which once extended into Georgia and west to Louisiana. Florida panthers remain genetically distinct as a subspecies, even with the introduction of the cougars.
The government intervention has allowed the panther population to expand, but large residential developments in South Florida have put additional strain on the animals.
Williams said human population growth in recent years, increases in panther road kill and increases in panther fatalities from territorial battles are all signs that habitat in South Florida may be maxed out.
Past reports documented that panthers range about 3.5 million acres, or about 5,500 square miles, in South Florida.
The big cats' official protective area is the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, 26,400 acres - about 41 square miles - in heart of the Big Cypress Basin in southwest Florida. Panthers also roam the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, together about 2.2 million acres.
From 2003 to 2008, federal regulators gave developers permission to build on nearly 25,000 acres, with more than double that proposed for future projects.
Last year saw a significant spike in the number of livestock and pets attacked by panthers in South Florida, from 15 reports in 2010 to 30 in 2011.
Jim Strickland, a Myakka City rancher and past president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, sat on a new committee last year aimed at making sure people and panthers can co-exist. He said he looks forward to seeing a panther one day, and welcomes them north of the Caloosahatchee.
"I'm a Floridian, and that habitat that these panthers are in is my home. So whether it's the panther, the bear, the eagle, the indigo snake or the scrub jay, those are all species that live on ranches," Strickland said. "It's kind of special, like belonging to Florida."