By Letitia Stein
TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - The endangered Florida panther, running out of room to prowl as its numbers rebound, may find its best chance at survival is a program to pay distrustful ranchers to protect what remains of its habitat.
The payment plan proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never been tried before on a large scale with a wide-ranging predator, officials say.
Landowners could receive $22 per acre (0.4 hectare) to maintain the cattle pastures and wooded scrub increasingly critical as panther terrain.
A growing number of panthers are hemmed into a shrinking corner of southwest Florida, where their ability to roam is threatened by ever expanding subdivisions and highways.
Florida panther numbers have more than tripled in recent decades to between 100 and 180, according to government estimates. But state officials say more than twice as many would be needed, in multiple populations, before the species could be downgraded on the endangered list.
"It's really about buying us some time," said Kevin Godsea, manager for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. "We are never going to be able to purchase all the land that we are going to need to recover the species."
Seventeen panthers already have died this year, mostly hit by cars, putting the year on track to be one of the deadliest for the species in recent history, according to state records.
The deaths exacerbate the struggles that panther advocates face in building on past successes. The rebound came after eight Texas pumas were introduced in 1995 to strengthen the Florida panther's genetics. The Florida panther is the last subspecies of puma surviving in the eastern United States.
Continuing the progress requires help from private landowners, say wildlife officials, acknowledging that many ranchers resent the official state animal, which can prey on their livestock.
Cattle, goats, chicken, turkeys - even cats and dogs - have all been known to become panther prey. It is difficult to prove a big cat killing from a carcass, complicating discussions about reimbursing ranchers for losses.
Jack Johnson, a rancher of three decades in rural Immokalee, Florida, said the payment proposal unveiled in late May did little to change his views of the Florida panther as a nuisance.
"Ultimately what I think is going to happen?" he said. "The three S's are going to be come into play - shoot, shovel and shut up."
It's also unclear how the payments, yet unfunded, would affect other federal farm bill programs, as well as state and private conservation efforts.
Wildlife officials would start with a three-year pilot project covering 10 percent of the desirable terrain in private hands, at a total cost of about $1.5 million.
But the money would not stop landowners from selling out to development in another decade or two. Conservation groups call the short-term horizon a concern.
Still, the proposal is one of the few viable options, said Alexis Meyer, who runs the Florida panther critical habitat campaign for the Sierra Club.
The panther, which roamed throughout the southeast, hasn't been welcomed in other states with suitable habitat, she noted.
"It really is hard to try and move a large predator," she said. "There is just something about a big cat that either you love it or you hate it."
(Editing by Sandra Maler)