The deaths of seven endangered Florida panthers this year have wildlife officials pushing for a captive breeding program by early next year.

Three of the seven were killed in fights with other panthers, two died of infections and one was killed crossing a road. One cause of death hasn't been determined.Two deaths were particularly critical because the cats had "founder" genetic material, meaning they had some of the purest genetic material available and haven't been subjected to inbreeding, said Dennis Jordan, Florida panther coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Gainesville.

"In terms of the goal of the program, to protect existing genetic material, we've lost some," Jordan said.

Under the program, about half the existing Florida panthers would be captured for breeding programs at zoos and private preserves. That, some biologists say, could prevent the extinction of the cats. No more than 50 panthers are believed to exist, most of them in southwest Florida.