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FWC chief dismisses panther hunt as 'ridiculous stretch'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said Friday he'd like to "ultimately" get the Florida panther off the federal endangered-species list.

But he disputed that a draft paper on panther-recovery efforts going before the commission Sept. 2 in Fort Lauderdale is a step toward allowing the big cats to be hunted.

The claim was made several times this summer as the commission reviewed and approved the state's first bear hunt in more than two decades.

"That's a very ridiculous stretch, an assertion by people that are either misinterpreting what we're putting out intentionally or trying to pursue their own agenda," Wiley said.

The draft recommends the commission seek more federal assistance as the panther population has reached its "carrying capacity" and is expanding to other parts of the state.

"We feel like we should be supportive, but the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service should step up and take a leadership role," Wiley said.

Nearly a half century of conservation efforts have allowed the panther population, mostly across South Florida, to grow from about 30 to around 180, according to the commission paper.

The current recovery plan calls for the panther population to reach about 240 adult cats in three areas across South Florida. Yet the panther population is being impacted by the human population in South Florida that has moved into the animal's natural habitat.

The draft recommends that the commission focus on "addressing the panther management challenges within the core breeding population south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee."