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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission says it's time to give up on expanding Florida panther population

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2015 at 1:21 PM

  • Florida panther cubs, via wikipedia

While you were watching Facebook posts about Cecil the Lion recently, another big cat was also coming under fire stateside: The Florida panther. The panther, which is Florida's state animal, is critically endangered, with only about 100-180 breeding animals living in the wild right now. But according to the FWC's Liesa Priddy, they’re becoming a nuisance for South Floridians who live around them.

“Panther populations are straining and currently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region,” according to an FWC policy memo, drafted in part by Priddy, that suggests that the animals may no longer need the “endangered” designation. Priddy, a South Florida rancher appointed to the FWC in 2012, told news outlets that she lost approximately 10 calves to suspected panther attacks over the course of several years. However, she assured everyone who asked, reduced protections for panthers would have no benefit for her personally. 

According to a peer-reviewed study published on July 29 by the Public Library of Science, the Florida panther is restricted to less than five percent of its historic range, isolated to one population in South Florida that has already reached its "carrying capacity" – aka the maximum population its current habitat can sustain. The study says that the panther's habitat and range is smaller than scientists originally thought, and that the animals simply do not have enough space to grow into. "We recommend that all remaining breeding habitat in south Florida should be maintained, and the current panther range should be expanded into south-central Florida," the study says. 

Instead, the FWC wrote in its memo that it's become a challenge to manage this one small population of panthers, and the "demand for staff time" to do so has put a burden on the agency. Therefore, in its draft position statement on panther recovery, it notes that it's just not practical for the state to meet the federal government's criteria for its panther-recovery program (you can read that here), which suggests that the state try to create ecological pathways for the animals to establish new breeding populations in different parts of the state. Too hard. Too much work. 

"There has been essentially no progress in meeting the broader range-wide recovery criteria, particularly establishing two additional viable populations of at least 240 panthers (adults and subadults), which requires establishment of breeding populations in central/north Florida and/or other southeastern states," the FWC writes.

FWC's recommendation: Stop trying. The agency memo suggests that the state simply maintain the population that exists and "manage" it to reduce human/panther conflicts – keep it small, keep it limited to the area it's in and make sure it's not inconveniencing the human population that has reduced its territory to a relative postage stamp. 

That's exactly the opposite of what the Public Library of Science study recommends: 

"Protection of the remaining breeding habitat in south Florida is essential to the survival and recovery of the subspecies and should receive the highest priority by regulatory agencies," it notes. "Further loss of adult panther habitat is likely to reduce the prospects for survival of the existing population, and decrease the probability of natural expansion of the population into south-central Florida." 

But the FWC, it seems, doesn't want to have to play a role in that any longer:

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rather than FWC, should lead any efforts to establish additional breeding populations of panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River beyond natural range expansion," FWC writes, without acknowledging that the panther's "natural range" used to be all of Florida, as well as other bordering states.

Read the FWC's recommendations for managing panthers here. Read the Public Library of Science study here. 

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