Plight of the Panther: What Happens When Preserving a Species Makes It Unpopular?

Some Floridians have turned on their once-beloved state cat.
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Some Floridians have turned on their once-beloved state cat.
(Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

(Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

On an overcast morning in late September, Mark Lotz, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, drove to a home in the Golden Gate Estates section of North Naples to see about some dead goats.

This part of southwest Florida is home to plenty of creatures, both native and exotic, that would gladly take apart a goat for supper: It’s black bear, bobcat, coyote, stray dog, python, monitor lizard, and gator country. But as Lotz crouched next to a thick stand of palmetto and gingerly probed the rib cage of a shredded goat carcass with his fingers, he knew immediately that a panther had killed it. The goat had been bitten at the base of its throat, suffocated, and then dragged to cover; its ribs had been chewed down to the spine. All were marks of a panther attack. The big cat also dined on four other goats whose scattered remains Lotz would go on to inspect and photograph that day.

Golden Gate Estates is the kind of edge-of-the-Everglades community where you can expect close encounters with wildlife from time to time. Dredged, subdivided, and partially developed out of wetlands in the 1960s, its streets are largely unpaved and unlit, and many of the plots were never even built on; they remain vacant lots covered by thick stands of live oaks, palms, pines, and Brazilian peppers. Rare as they are, panthers aren’t a completely uncommon sight in the Estates—and they’re not a particularly welcome one, either. Back in 2009, one hunter killed a panther here with a bow and arrow. When asked why by federal investigators, he replied succinctly: “I don’t like those damn things.”

By definition, preserving nature means living with wildlife, the behavior of which we cannot control.

And that’s the problem. As recently as 20 years ago, there were roughly as many panthers to be found in the entire state of Florida as there are words in this sentence. Alarmed, a broad cross-section of Floridians decided they didn’t want to lose one of their state’s signature species, so they made an effort to save them. (Schoolchildren “elected” the cat to its current position of official state animal back in 1982.) Today, most biologists estimate that there are between 100 and 180 panthers roaming the state, concentrated mostly in the southwest. That’s still not a lot, but as their population has increased, their popularity has plummeted—especially among some ranchers and landowners, who claim that there are far more panthers out there than biologists have counted, and that they’re killing livestock in alarming numbers. As the backlash mounts, at least four panthers have been killed under suspicious circumstances since 2009, and Lotz says biologists are also detecting the presence of lead—from bullets and buckshot—more frequently in panthers that have been hit by cars, meaning that some of the animals were likely shot but survived until they later tried to cross the highway. (Next to habitat loss, automobiles pose the greatest threat to panthers; last year, 24 cats died after being struck by drivers.)

The panther is hardly the only animal that has battled its way back from the brink of extinction, thanks to preservation efforts, only to find itself not entirely welcome in its former home. In the West, gray wolves, protected by law and re-introduced into their historic range, have infuriated ranchers by eating their livestock. In Chicago, coyotes have turned up in some highly improbable places—outside suburban shopping malls, at Navy Pier, even on Lake Shore Drive—causing some residents to fear for their pets. Florida has for some time now administered a hotline devoted to investigating complaints about the once-endangered alligator (which, unlike the panther, has been known to attack people on rare occasions).

By definition, preserving nature means living with wildlife, the behavior of which we cannot control. But especially when it comes to large carnivores, this new living arrangement frequently requires human beings to change the way that we live—and that’s a sacrifice that our species, so far at least, has seemed reluctant to make.

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Puma concolor coryi also goes by a number of other aliases: puma, cougar, mountain lion. The first Spanish explorers to reach Florida’s shores believed that the tawny felines they encountered were lions. Settlers through the 19th century often mistook them for tigers—as kittens, the blond cats have camouflage spots that can resemble stripes—and pioneer folklore featured many tall tales of these stealthy creatures stalking women and children, even occasionally snatching babies.

A Florida panther family. (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

A Florida panther family. (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Historically, P. c. coryi ranged throughout the southeastern United States; gradually, as the Southeast was settled, the animal’s land was whittled away until only the Florida population persisted. By the early 1970s, scientists estimated that fewer than two dozen unhealthy, inbred survivors remained, threatened by both hunters and land developers, and the panther was included on the first-ever list of endangered species. Their imminent disappearance from the Earth appeared inevitable.

But a funny thing happened on the Florida panther’s path to extinction. In 1989, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service bought 24,300 acres of prime habitat abutting Big Cypress National Preserve (which expanded to 26,400 acres in 1996) to create the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Fences were erected and underpasses were dug beneath roads to maximize panther mobility and minimize encounters with automobiles. Most significantly, in 1995, eight female Texas cougars—representing a subspecies with which the Florida panther would have mated, just a few hundred years ago, at the western edge of its historic range—were released into panther habitat, a controversial maneuver that scientists hoped would help strengthen the gene pool. The plan worked: 20 crossbred kittens were born as a result, and genetic variation within the population increased.

Healthy panthers have healthy appetites. As their numbers increased, so, too, did the number of “depredation events,” the official term for when a panther makes a meal of livestock or domestic pets. In 2005, Lotz and other state wildlife biologists confirmed one such event; nine years later, they tallied 34 of them. It’s unclear whether the increase is due to more kills, increased reporting, or both—but it is clear that a panther backlash is building. At one public meeting in 2014, more than 50 south Florida hunters and ranchers (described by the Naples Daily News as “belligerent”) argued that the population was far larger than the 100-to-180 figure that biologists have officially put forth—and also that, regardless of what the actual figure was, it was already too large for comfort. Time to stop helping the panther, they argued. We’ve done enough.

But what constitutes a complete recovery? According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency responsible for listing, rehabilitating, and, one day, potentially delisting the panther—it would look like this: three self-sustaining populations of at least 240 cats each, maintained for a minimum of 12 years in habitat that has been secured for the long term. This set of circumstances, the data suggest, would allow the species to survive without any human intervention for 100 years.

As it turns out, though, it’s not so easy to count panthers. Officials must currently rely on strategically placed cameras, trackers who are trained to look for signs of animals in the wild, and data collected from collared panthers as well as those killed by cars. One new estimate, based on roadkill numbers, has put the number of Florida panthers as high as 270, but with a margin of error that allows for a minimum of 120 and a maximum of 500.

A collared Florida panther is released by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

A collared Florida panther is released by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

Amid this kind of uncertainty, factions form and controversy blooms. Dawn Jennings, former liaison for the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team—a small group that includes representatives from federal and state wildlife agencies, a sportsmen’s association, and a developer—acknowledges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a major public relations problem. “There’s a big fear among landowners that if panthers come onto their land, the federal government will start regulating it,” she told me. “Same for hunters.” She then added quickly: “But that’s just not the case. We have a lot of work to do to build trust with the stakeholder community. That’s our biggest obstacle.”

That’s because the real question is this: If the panther population does continue to grow, as seems to be the case, where will the animals live? The lands preserved for them in southwest Florida represent less than five percent of their historic range. Individual panthers are territorial and patrol several hundred square miles each, demanding a lot of space. Yet development proceeds apace throughout their natural home. Within the past 20 years alone, an airport expansion and a new university with an accompanying town have already risen up to claim 13,000 acres of prime panther habitat, and new properties continue to spring up around them. Meanwhile, a proposed plan to create a massive wildlife corridor—one that would stretch from the Everglades north to Georgia and west to Alabama—has remained stuck in the fundraising stage.

It’s beginning to look like we might have saved the Florida panther—for now—but left nowhere for it to live.

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“This pasture is where we first discovered that panthers were eating our calves,” Liesa Priddy told me, gesturing toward a corner of her property that sits alongside State Road 29 in Immokalee, Florida. When her father passed away several years ago, Priddy inherited all 9,000-plus acres that her grandparents had purchased in the late 1940s, and has been raising cattle there ever since. In October 2010, when a calf went missing, she immediately suspected panthers, which Priddy, her husband, and other workers had previously spotted on the property. A friend volunteered to stake out the pasture with night-vision goggles; a few evenings later, he watched a panther take another newborn. Over the remainder of the year, five more calves disappeared.

“It was devastating,” Priddy said, both emotionally and financially. (At auction, the particular calves that went missing could have brought in nearly $1,000 apiece.) She and some other ranchers who were also losing calves lobbied wildlife officials, asking to be compensated. Their argument: Commercial ranchers were unjustly being forced to pay—out of their own pockets and in the form of lost cattle—for panther-conservation costs that ought to be shared by all U.S. citizens.

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, launched a study on land owned by Priddy and another Immokalee rancher to try to calculate the losses and to confirm that calf loss due to panthers was widespread—a surprisingly difficult task. Panthers typically drag their kills to cover in thick scrub, sometimes hundreds of yards away from where they’ve originally ambushed their prey. Across 10,000 acres, a missing calf is nearly impossible to find.

(Photo: National Park Service)

(Photo: National Park Service)

In August 2011, Caitlin Jacobs, a graduate student at the University of Florida, began tagging a portion of the ranchers’ newborn calves with transmitters that would alert her if one of her subjects stopped moving for two hours, indicating the likely death of the animal. Jacobs would then locate the carcass, determine the cause of death, and set up cameras to see if a predator came back to feed on it again. Over the course of her study, the Priddy ranch lost 10 of these tagged calves to panthers, representing 5.3 percent of the herd under observation. (Both ranches that took part in the study also lost a calf to a bear—a surprising discovery.)

Eventually Jacobs determined that multiple panthers, and not one rogue individual, were preying on the herds, albeit not frequently enough to suggest that the cattle were crucial to their survival. So she started thinking about solutions the ranchers could implement to make their herds less appealing to panthers—another fiendishly difficult task. The most obvious and effective protection strategies, such as keeping cattle close together at high densities, would necessarily involve changing management practices or altering the landscape. And as Jacobs put it, “You don’t want to change their management, because their management is why it’s good panther habitat. It would be really bad for panthers if the ranchers turned their ranches into tomato fields, or something else that makes them more money.”

So instead, the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team has proposed a novel solution that, if implemented, could mark a new milestone for endangered-species conservation in the U.S. Employing an incentive strategy known by conservationists as “payments for ecosystem services,” the group’s plan would offer ranchers a per-year stipend to maintain panther-friendly acreage for a full decade, with the total amount paid out to individual ranchers being based on how well their land-management practices meshed with established guidelines. In southwestern Florida, the team has already identified more than 190,000 acres of eligible top-tier land and nearly 70,000 acres of second-tier land that, at $30.80 and $9 per acre respectively, would cost about $6.5 million per year to enroll. (The group is requesting funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to conduct a three-year pilot version of the program, which it hopes to launch later this year or in early 2016.)

Giving landowners a financial incentive to help preserve panthers could be an important first step in brokering peace and restoring the wild cat’s eroding popularity. It would also help to open up the animals’ range, which would allow them to begin migrating north- and westward from their circumscribed home in southwestern Florida. But having the freedom to move about isn’t the same thing as actually moving about freely. So far, panthers have yet to set up a breeding population north of the Caloosahatchee River, which runs from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico and separates the southwestern watershed from the more urban and agricultural landscapes in central and northern Florida. Still, they’re getting close. Wildlife officials would prefer that the species make the move on its own, without their assistance.

It’s beginning to look like we might have saved the Florida panther, but left nowhere for it to live.

Should they manage to do so, of course, facilitating the cats’ expansion into south-central Florida and points beyond will require even more negotiations with even more stakeholders—a potentially fraught situation that officials hope will be made much easier if the pilot program is implemented and turns out to be a success. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of contemporary models out there for the building of strategic partnerships between landowners and wildlife advocates. “Given the current cultural divides in this country—partisan divides, political divides, rural versus urban, red states versus blue states—it would be super easy to let conservation issues fracture along those same lines,” Andrew Wetzler, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Land & Wildlife Program, told me. “But there’s no reason for it to be that way, especially when it comes to the iconic animals that everyone values. And the best way to prevent it from happening is for us to have early conversations with one another, where we can develop solutions that will benefit everyone.”

Citing such examples as the Blackfoot Challenge—a coalition of agencies, landowners, and environmental groups that seeks consensus on issues relating to land use and wildlife management over a 1.5 million-acre Montana watershed—Wetzler emphasizes the crucial role that open communication between stakeholders plays in determining the success of any efforts to save threatened carnivores. Two of the most important lessons he and other wildlife advocates have learned over the years, he said, are that “first, you have to start by listening to people’s concerns. And second, people need to be talking to and hearing from their peers.” Ranchers, for example, are in the best position to fully understand the concerns of other ranchers; if you’re trying to make the case within their community for employing non-lethal means of controlling wild animals, “you need to make sure that the people having these conversations—the people carrying these messages—are from the community.”

Biologists with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission release a female Florida panther. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

Biologists with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission release a female Florida panther. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

When message and messenger are well matched, the results can go a long way toward establishing peace between wild animals and their human neighbors. In some parts of the country, the solution may involve range riding, the installation of new and better fencing, or the introduction of livestock guard dogs; in southern Florida, the hope is that a stipend for ranchers will fit the bill. “It’s important to acknowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Wetzler told me. “It needs to be tailored to the individual circumstances. But the solution—whatever it is—has to work for both the landowner and the wildlife. By and large, there’s almost always one that does.”

But if that’s true, there are also many more that don’t. As someone whose location and livelihood have situated her quite literally in the middle of the panther controversy, Liesa Priddy was picked by Governor Rick Scott to serve on the seven-member Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission back in 2012. Then, a few weeks ago—several months after I interviewed her for this article—Priddy’s name began popping up in a number of panther-related newspaper stories, albeit in a highly unexpected context. Along with one of her fellow commissioners, she was now publicly floating a draft policy that, were it to be implemented, would dramatically scale back federal protection of the Florida panther, giving much more authority over the management of its welfare and habitat to the state. What’s more, Priddy had been speaking of the animal’s recovery in such a way that many believed her to be suggesting that the cat be removed from the federal endangered-species list altogether.

Citing ranchers’ continued livestock losses and even the fears of parents whose young children played outdoors as rationales for rebooting management strategy, Priddy told one reporter that there were simply “too many panthers on a limited amount of habitat,” and another that the state of Florida needed greater flexibility to tailor a more “realistic” plan for the panther—one that, in her words, “puts people first.” The response from wildlife groups, unsurprisingly, was swift and pointed, with one local wildlife advocate declaring that delisting the panther would be “inconsistent with good science,” and another noting that the species was “far from recovery.” In short order, Priddy found herself in a Sarasota hotel ballroom, assuring a restive crowd of 200 people who had felt compelled to attend the commission’s meeting that she did not, in fact, want to see the panther delisted, and furthermore that her critics were “reading way more into this [plan]” than was merited.

By the end of the meeting, Priddy’s fellow commissioners had decided that the policy draft still required a bit more work before it could be presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the final say on the Florida panther’s status as a federally protected species. But in an ominously suggestive postscript to the whole episode, a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted that—with the exception of one commissioner who had “expressed concern” with Priddy’s proposal—“most did not seem to have major objections.”

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For now, at least, the most reliable place to find a Florida panther is still in captivity. In the west-central part of the state, Yuma, a young male found abandoned at one week old in January 2014, lives at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. On a rainy afternoon this past fall, one of his keepers, Andrea Junkunc, took me to see him.

Yuma the Florida panther. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

Yuma the Florida panther. (Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife)

Yuma was fearful of umbrellas specifically, Junkunc said, as well as new sights and sounds more generally. But when he heard her voice drawing near, he chirped contentedly in his pen, which opened into a grassy enclosure enhanced by thin saplings, a felled log, and a shallow wading pool, complete with its own mechanical waterfall. Yuma’s keepers had raised him on a bottle, since he had never learned how to hunt. His hobbies included chasing vultures, and Junkunc told me that she had once seen him swat at a butterfly (albeit not hard enough to bring it down). He reminded her of her own house cat.

“We’re honored to have him—he’s an ambassador for his kind,” she said. “People never get to see panthers. But then they see him, and they fall in love. And they want to conserve them.”

Presently a throng of tourists made its way to a glass window overlooking Yuma’s enclosure. As if on cue, he bounded theatrically out of his pen and “attacked” a clump of Spanish moss, shaking it aggressively in his jaws. He batted a rock with oversize paws. With his round, black ears cocked and his muscles taut, he shook the rain from his tawny coat. He ran and leapt, arching his back, his lithe body and long black-tipped tail unfurling in the air.

Cameras flashed and fingers tapped the glass. “Beautiful,” someone said.

This post originally appeared on Earthwire as “Plight of the Panther” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.

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