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KNOXVILLE — Development of sparsely forested areas, once thought to have little impact on Florida panthers, could further endanger this rare species, a University of Tennessee study shows.

Dr. Louis Gross, a UT professor of ecology and mathematics, said earlier studies have suggested that Florida panthers need large, dense forests to survive, in part because many of them were first found in such areas.

However, a detailed study by Gross and Jane Comiskey of UT-s Institute for Environmental Modeling shows the species’ population, which has doubled since 1995, is expanding into sparsely forested areas largely thought unsuitable for panthers.

“Our analysis confirms that panthers rest in dense cover, but during their active hours they use the mosaic of habitats available to them in the landscape,” Gross said. “They can establish home ranges with very low fractions of forest cover and be successful there.”

The UT data could play an important role in the fight between conservationists protecting Florida’s panther wilderness areas and developers building residential, commercial and retail centers for the rapidly growing human population.

“One of the arguments has been over the degree to which development should be limited to accommodate the survival and recovery of panthers,” Gross said. “The developers say they should only have to compensate for impacts to forested habitats.

“But our analysis shows that panthers move about freely within extensive home ranges during their active hours, hunting, mating, and raising young. Environmentally sensitive development must consider impacts to the entire home range of panthers, including open areas and areas used by prey.”

Gross said the Florida panthers are among the rarest of endangered mammals. About 80 panthers live in South Florida, 42 of which are monitored via radio-transmitter collars from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Results of the UT study recently appeared in the online journal “Conservation Ecology.”

UT’s Institute for Environmental Modeling website is located at: