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Friday, February 11, 2011 - 11:35am

Groups Want Florida Panther In Okefenokee

Environmental groups have filed a petition to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduce the Florida panther to the Okefenokee Swamp.

The groups say that the animals' current habitat in South Florida is diminishing because the cats' population is growing too large to fit in highly urbanized South Florida.

There are an estimated 120 to 160 Florida panthers in existence.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity says, panthers once roamed throughout the South.

He says the Okefenokee National Widlife Refuge is a perfect fit for the endangered Florida panther.

"First and foremost, it's got lots of undeveloped land, good habitat for Florida panthers," Robinson says. "And that habitat supports the prey of the Florida panthers, including deer and feral hogs as well."

His group and three others are asking the wildlife agency to put a few hundred panthers in the swamp, where an earlier experiment showed large cats can live.

"Having additional populations and room for the Florida panther to grow will stave off extinction and secure their future," Robinson says.

But the agency has yet to respond and it could take years even if they agree.

There would have to be lengthy study and comment periods.

Under federal law, the agency is charged with protecting endangered species.

If the agency doesn't agree, the groups could file suit.

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