By Chad Gillis
State wildlife managers held off Tuesday on adopting a controversial Florida panther management plan that has some concerned the state may proceed with hunting one of the most endangered species on the planet.
One day before it's likely to approve the first black bear hunt here in more than 20 years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to hold off adopting its panther position paper — which says the public has a limited tolerance of panthers and that management actions need to be taken to avoid future human-panther conflict.
Hunting panthers was brought up several times.
"This position statement, and I hate to say this, reads as though it's a first step for delisting and opening up hunting for the Florida panther, and I think you realize many in this room would not support that," said Jennifer Leon of Hillsborough County. "It is very vague, which is why it reads like the first step of the demise of Florida panthers."
Commissioner Ron Bergeron put a halt to adopting the paper during an FWC meeting in Sarasota. Other commissioners were ready to move forward with the paper, which says Florida will not participate in panther recovery beyond the cats that currently live in South Florida — mostly Collier County.
Bergeron said the state should continue being a partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The paper says the federal agency will be responsible for further growing the population and that the state will not help. He also alluded to using Amendment 1 money to purchase and conserve more panther habitat.
"We should be really focused on that expansion in this particular area," Bergeron said of expanding the panther's range. "Amendment 1 is for conservation, and I think FWC and FWS should make recommendations on the highest priority on the most pristine areas that affects the priority."
Commissioner Liessa Priddy, who owns a ranch in Collier County and reported multiple calf depredations prior to being appointed commissioner, was ready to move forward with the paper, in which she played a large role in developing.
"(But) I'm not against tweaking it in any way," she said.
Commissioners decided to continue working on the position paper and to bring it back in front of the commission at its September meeting.
The Florida panther once roamed nearly all of the Southeastern United States. Overhunting and development pushed the species to only 20 to 30 in the wild. Genetic inbreeding caused health issues, and it looked 20 years ago like the state may lose the panther forever.
Some at Tuesday's meeting said there never has been a Florida panther, and that it deserves no special protections.
"There is no real such thing as a Florida panther," said Newton Cook, a member of the South Florida Water Management District's Resources Advisory Council. "There are panthers living in Florida. We have an isolated population of North American panthers in South Florida. We need not be concerned that panthers are going to go extinct. There's tens of thousands of them and they are actually hunted in other states."
Many ranchers spoke up as well, although FWC records showed only three or four calves are killed by panthers each year.
"We're confronted by them every day," said Immokalee area rancher Jack Johnson. "The depredations have grown. These panthers today are much larger (since a Texas cougar genetic introduction in the 1990s). They are more aggressive. They will stalk you and they're not afraid."
He said panthers will take calves and hunter's kills "and walk away smiling."
Commissioner Bergeron, who lives in panther habitat, disagreed.
"Panthers actually move away from people," he said. "There's never been a documented panther attack on a human. I think a dog would be much more likely to attack you than a panther."
The current panther recovery plan says there must be three separate populations of 240 individuals before the animal can be removed from the Endangered Species list. Two populations of 240 would be required to lower panthers from endangered to threatened.
The FWC position paper says those goals are unrealistic and that the state will not help relocate panthers north of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River, water barriers female panthers haven't been found north of in decades.
"We talk about north of the river and south of the river, even if cats go north of the river that is still the same population we are dealing with," Priddy said. "To consider what the next step I think we need to figure out where that second population is going to go, and we don't have that answer."
There was also discussion about the state increasing subsidies for ranchers who lose calves and other commercial livestock.
Larry Williams, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said restoring panther populations is not hard, that government agencies and biologists know what panthers need to thrive. He said growing panther populations is comparable to stocking ponds and lakes with largemouth bass fry.
"We're definitely in a new phase of panther recovery and we need to keep moving forward," Williams said. "Panthers are not recovered yet but they are definitely out of the emergency room."
He said the goals could be accomplished while keeping the burden on private property land owners "to a minimum."
Priddy said the state should focus on where a second population would be located every time the state is considering spending money on panther expansion or recovery.
She also said some people are reading too much into the position paper, that the state has no secret motivation for lessening panther protections.
"We are not weakening protections," Priddy said. "This policy doesn't change the treatment of the panther as far as the endangered species act goes. We're still bound by those restrictions."