Does Florida have enough panthers?

For the second year in a row, the Florida panther is dying from road kills in record numbers.

To conservationists, that’s a clear signal more needs to be done to protect the 100 to 180 cats that remain. But in a state heavily influenced by big developers, big ranchers and the rush to build on the last remaining tracts of open land in the heart of panther country, wildlife managers say the number represents something entirely different: the successful rebound of a cat back from the brink of extinction.

In a meeting Tuesday, state officials will ask to scale back a federal conservation plan that calls for two additional populations in Central Florida long considered critical to the panther’s survival.

“It’s time to take a fresh look at where panthers fit in,” said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who would like the state to take over managing the panther. “If we can get to a point where there’s less federal regulation and allow the state of Florida to have more control over panther management, then we’d like to get to that point.”

While Wiley stopped short of saying panthers no longer need protecting, he said the “intensive care” provided by the the Endangered Species Act is no longer necessary.

Florida panther Fish and Wildlife 03
An adult panther perched in a tree. HANDOUT Photo courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Federal regulators have agreed to reconsider plans, acknowledging opposition from ranchers, landowners and residents has complicated efforts. And while the cats’ connection to other cougar populations across the South is still key to its future, how that happens needs to be reconsidered, said Larry Williams, the Florida supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our real life experience is sort of pointing in a different direction than what the recovery plan was pointing to,” he said. “If you have 300 or 400 panthers in South Florida, is there any way you consider that recovery?”

The dramatic shift has angered conservationists. Until now, they considered it a given that wildlife managers would continue to try to increase the population of an iconic predator that is Florida’s state animal. But recent actions — steep budget cuts in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a Tuesday vote to allow hunting of black bears just coming off the threatened species list and the Legislature’s diversion of tens of millions in voter-approved money for conserving wild lands — has them worried Florida is turning its back on wildlife.

“For the state government to openly say we will not support the federal government in implementing the recovery ... of a species is almost unprecedented,” said Jennifer Hecker, a policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “They are the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That should be their foremost goal.”

The fight to save the panther, one of the first 14 animals on the federal endangered species list, is a long and complicated one, burdened by the needs of a wide-ranging top predator not always welcome in an increasingly crowded state. By 1990, wildlife officials counted just 46 adult panthers suffering from years of inbreeding. Most males — an estimated 90 percent — had poorly developed testicles that hampered breeding.

Biologists turned around the decline in the 1990s after releasing nine Texas female cougars to clean up the gene pool. By 2006, wildlife officials counted 97.

As numbers climbed, so did the panther’s need for territory. Road kills inched up as male panthers roamed further north in search of new habitat. Male panthers killing other males also increased — another sign the big cats were running out of territory in the heart of their habitat in Southwest Florida. In 2008, federal officials revised a recovery plan to include the goal of establishing two populations of 240 cats north of the Caloosahatchee River.

State biologists say that rising road mortality trends over the last few years indicate the cats were trying to expand their range: In 2009, 20 panthers were killed trying to cross roads or by other panthers. The number climbed to 25 in 2012, dropped to 19 in 2013, then rose to 26 last year. So far this year, 15 panthers have been hit by vehicles or killed by other panthers.

Florida panther Fish and Wildlife 01
A male panther in the wild. HANDOUT Photo courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

But a crucial part of that plan has failed: so far only males have crossed the river into new territory. No females have been documented. Williams said federal officials have tried to find a place to move a female but keep encountering opposition. That may lead them to instead rely on panthers to expand north on their own, a move environmentalists worry will never happen.

“We have some landowners north of the river who have said they would welcome a breeding population. But there’s also a lot who would not. So it’s a mixed bag,” he said.

While conservationists would argue the panthers are being squeezed by increased development, ranchers say too little land exists.

FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy, a third generation rancher who worked with Wiley to draft the state memo on recovery plans, said the increasing number of livestock and pets killed by panthers shows just how critical the situation has become. In 2014, when the state started posting numbers, 33 domestic animals were killed by panthers. So far, 10 deaths this year have been confirmed. No attacks on humans have ever been documented — panthers are notoriously shy. But in February, a landscaper encountered a cat in the tony Port Royal neighborhood in Naples. A year earlier, one was spotted in a Naples beachfront park.

“Basically there’s too many panthers on a limited amount of habitat,” Priddy said. “You’re just trying to put too many on too small a space.”

Priddy says the state simply doesn’t have the land necessary for more panthers. And rather than continue trying to reach an unreasonable goal — the memo she and Wiley drafted calls it “aspirational rather than practical” — U.S. wildlife officials should either take charge and find the land needed. Or change the requirements.

“It would be much easier for us if we knew there was a place that was appropriate for that second and third population,” she said. “What person continues to use resources and spend money on a plan or business if you know that it’s never going to work?”

But conservationists say Priddy, whose family owns 9,000 acres north of the Big Cypress Preserve with 400 head of cattle, has a vested interest in seeing conservation plans scaled back so that the land can be rezoned to increase its value. In 2003, Collier County voted to allow development under a stewardship program intended to conserve panther habitat while allowing developments. The town of Ava Maria was built in 2005. Another project with 10,000 homes and 1.9 million square feet of commercial space on 4,000 acres is also planned. To serve the developments, landowners say they will need many more miles of road that would require extending some four and six-lane roads, creating further hazards for the big cats.

Priddy says her land will never be developed and that the stewardship plan is “a whole other way of looking at urban sprawl. It is panther habitat, but I don’t understand how anyone could connect that to me benefiting from this policy.”

Florida panther Fish and Wildlife 02
An adult Florida panther in the brush. HANDOUT Photo courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

But Hecker complained that what started as a plan to develop just 16,000 acres has ballooned to more than 43,000 acres.

“All the evidence in indicates they are pursuing development,” she said.

Critics says the state is also pushing to bypass an ongoing joint effort to resolve problems. In 2013, the federal government gathered a team that included the state, landowners, environmental groups and the National Park Service. The group has been meeting monthly to come up with ways to address competing interests, that now include complaints from hunters who last year won permission to hunt in about 100,000 acres of the Big Cypress National Preserve but are having trouble finding deer.

“Why not let the process work and wait for a consensus rather than having a predetermined outcome?” Hecker asked.

Wiley said the group is moving too slowly: “The current science... hasn’t been honestly revisited in a sincere way in many years,” he said.

But the state hasn’t taken aggressive steps either, said Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, who finds himself opposing landowners he supported just a few years ago in a joint effort to protect panthers. A decade ago, the state bought the 73,000-acre Babcock Ranch to help create panther habitat north of the Caloosahatchee. In 2012, the feds purchased easements on another 1,300 acres along a critical sliver of Glades County land that panthers use to cross the river. To give up on efforts to create the northern populations now is puzzling, he said.

“You almost read this as they’re moving toward managing the panther as a nuisance species rather than an endangered species,” he said.

Related stories from Miami Herald