A controversial proposal to scale back conservation plans for the endangered Florida panther is back on the drawing table.
On Tuesday, following five hours of public comments, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners agreed to rework the plan after Commissioner Ron Bergeron raised objections.
Saying the agency needs to be “better stewards,” the two-term commissioner said he could not vote for the plan.
“We have to keep the same level of protection of the panther until … we are very, very comfortable,” Bergeron said.
The policy, drafted by Commissioner Liesa Priddy, a rancher, and Executive Director Nick Wiley, alarmed conservationists by suggesting that state efforts need to shift from expanding the population to maintaining one that could “co-exist” in fast-growing Southwest Florida. Once numbering just 20 to 30, panthers have rebounded to a population estimated at between 100 and 180.
The increase has led to a record number of road kills. Ranchers and hunters complain that panthers also are preying on more livestock and deer, a sign they are outgrowing their territory.
A federal recovery plan drafted in 2008 calls for three distinct populations of 240 panthers, including two north of the Caloosahatchee River, before the cats can be removed from the endangered species list. But in their memo, Priddy and Wiley called the plan “aspirational rather than practical” and said the state should stop supporting efforts to expand the panther north until federal officials figure out the locations of future populations and overcome opposition from local landowners.
Priddy said she does not want the cat removed from the endangered species list and Tuesday warned a crowded room at the Sarasota Hyatt Regency, “You’re reading way more into this policy that is there.”
But conservationists worried that reducing conservation measures effectively speeds up removing protections.
The plan “attempts to redefine recovery in terms of social tolerance rather than biology,” complained Laurie MacDonald, a Florida program director for Defenders of Wildlife, who said the population “has not reached interim goals much less recovery goals.”
As the number of panthers increased, wildlife officials have increasingly wrestled with how to deal with encounters with humans — what the agency calls “conflict management.” Since 2004, 106 hobby livestock or pets and 34 calves have been killed by panthers. That number could be much higher since panthers tend to hide their kill so they can feed for days, explained Kipp Frohlich, deputy director of the agency’s division of Habitat and Species Conservation.
“What is a sustainable co-existence?” he asked. “It’s a hard question. It’s a policy question.”
Bergeron, as well as conservationists, say the answer may lie in spending money from Amendment 1, a constitutional measure overwhelmingly passed by voters in November to buy sensitive land, on panther habitat. Bergeron also said historic panther habitat in the central Everglades has been flooded by restoration efforts and more needs to be done to manage the land for panthers.
“From 2000 to 2014, not one panther has entered that area and that’s because of the water levels,” he said. “There’s another million acres that needs to be managed correctly.”