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Environmental Groups Call for Expansion of Panther Refuge
Landowners make thousands of acres available
www.commondreams.org - August 2010
NAPLES, FL - When the U.S. Department of the Interior came to Orlando August 26th, 2010, as part of the "America's Great Outdoors" tour, environmental groups presented a request that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service significantly expand the boundaries of the 26,000 acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Expansion of the refuge will expedite the protection and recovery of the endangered Florida panther and the many imperiled species which share its Southwest Florida habitat.
Since originally sending a letter to Secretary Salazar in early August, Collier and Florida Audubon Societies, Florida Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife have worked with several large landowners near the Panther Refuge to confirm the acreage of private lands that might be made available for public acquisition. Over ten years of collaboration between the landowners and these conservation groups have resulted in landmark programs to secure permanent protection of wetlands and habitat on a huge landscape scale in Southwest Florida. These programs include the 180,000 acre Rural Land Stewardship Program in Collier County, and the Florida Panther Protection Program (see www.FloridaPantherProtection.com), which have thus far protected over 50,000 acres of habitat through landowner incentives.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for public acquisition of valuable habitat on a landscape level from willing sellers," said Laurie Macdonald, Florida Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. "It complements the ongoing but more measured pace of the collaborative Florida Panther Protection Program we're implementing with these same landowners."
Many of these landowners, including Sunniland Family Limited Partnership, Collier Enterprises, Alico, and McDaniel Ranch in Hendry County, have now indicated they are willing to sell certain crucial lands in and around the Big Cypress Area of Critical State Concern and in the Panther Glades Florida Forever project in southeastern Hendry County. The extent approaches 40-50,000 acres and represents a tremendous opportunity for Refuge expansion, which has not been available previously from willing sellers. The Panther Glades project forms a connection between Devils' Garden, Half Circle L Ranch, and Save Our Everglades Florida Forever projects within the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
"The federal government is hard-pressed to name a more vital area to expedite acquisition of endangered species habitat. The private lands north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve are essential components of this rare animal's core range. With barely a hundred known to live in the wild, protection of the Florida panther's occupied habitat is top priority for the Federation and our conservation allies," noted Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida Field Representative for Florida Wildlife Federation.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists have developed very recent panther habitat modeling which identifies the most crucial portions of the species' current occupied range in Southwest Florida which require preservation or restoration. This effort has prioritized eastern Collier County and southern Hendry County for the most urgent habitat protection work. With this scientific foundation, Defenders, the Federation, Collier Audubon and Florida Audubon have proposed expanding the Panther Refuge through public land acquisition from willing sellers, all within the high-priority protection area identified by this current research.
"After the devastation of the Gulf Oil Spill, the people of Florida and the nation would celebrate such a bold public action to protect one of the most iconic and ecologically pivotal species in the Southeast," remarked Eric Draper, President of Florida Audubon Society.
Possible funding sources the groups have identified are the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as monies available under the Endangered Species Act for landowners implementing a Habitat Conservation Plan, which is underway now for the 180,000 acres of eastern Collier County. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has approximately $900 million authorized annually (although appropriated variably) from oil drilling royalties, a source which adds some significance to its potential use in expanding the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida.
Panther Terrorizes Naples Family, Neighborhood
Posted: Aug 15, 2010 5:49 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 15, 2010 6:40 PM EDT
COLLIER COUNTY: A Florida panther has made itself at home in a rural Naples area.
And for the fifth time in only a year, one local family is mourning the loss of a family pet.
The latest victim is a donkey named Bella.
Ted Naftal is concerned not only for his family pets, but for the neighborhood that he calls home.
"We've got kids that run up and down the road, we've got girls that jog up and down the road," he said on Sunday afternoon. "I've got grandkids that ride out here in the pasture."
The Florida Wildlife Commission is investigating.
But they say relocating the panthers won't work because another will just move in and claim the territory.
FWC says people can only protect themselves, by keeping a close eye on children and keeping pets in a covered shelter overnight.
Pete Gallagher’s comment on above story:
“There has never been a documented attack of a Florida panther on a human being. People who live in rural Collier County or anywhere near the range of wild animals such as coyotes or bobcats or panthers, should not have donkeys loose in an unprotected pasture or stall. They should not leave family domestic pets outside, or similarly unprotected. It is a privilege to live so close to such majestic animals in Florida. Don’t move there if you are afraid, or want to have donkeys running around outside. These people remind me of the folks who move in next door to the music club and then complain to the police about the sound. Folks who have lived in the Collier outback for many years do not have donkeys out in the open for pets. They cover their trash (bears are out there, too) and they learn to live with the wildlife, not against the wildlife. The Florida Game Commission will gladly send a representative out to speak to any home owner in those areas with information and customized suggestions on how to “panther-proof” their property. Man up, Collier County residents, and do the right thing.
Panther Killed On Collier County Roadway Was Pregnant
August 5, 8:21 AM
Ft. Myers Nature Examiner
An average of 6-15 Florida panthers are killed on Florida roadways each year.
A Florida panther was hit by a vehicle early Tuesday morning along State Road 29 in Collier County.
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists, responding to a motorist call, arrived to find the animal was still alive.
After taking the injured cat to a local veterinary clinic, biologists learned that she was expecting kittens. None of the unborn kittens survived the trauma, but biologists optimistically arranged for the female's transport to a rehabilitation center in northern Florida. Unfortunately, she did not make the trip.
Panthers are an Endangered species, and possibly the most endangered species in the country. These large cats once roamed across the entire southern U.S., but Florida panthers have become geographically isolated from their cougar cousins in the west over the past 100 years due to loss of habitat and land use changes across the region. Their range is now reduced to peninsular Florida, and breeding seems to only occur in extreme south Florida, south of the Caloosahatchee River. With approximately 100-120 panthers living in the wild, FWC biologists are monitoring the population and doing everything they can to prevent these amazing animals from becoming extinct.
According to a press release on the FWC website, "the number of Florida panthers killed by collisions with vehicles has been on the increase since 2000, ranging from 6 to 15 per year." The year with the most vehicular deaths was 2007 when 15 panthers were reported killed on state roadways.
This week's mortality marks the 14th panther death by vehicular collision for the state in 2010. While panther-crossing signs indicate locations where panther activity has been known to occur, the large cats roam far and wide in search of new territory, food, and mates.
Motorists are urged to use caution on Florida roadways especially during dawn and dusk hours and also to call the FWC to report a collision with a panther immediately. Similar to pedestrian hit-and-run rules, motorists colliding with endangered species are exempt from penalty if they make the report and stay with the animal until officials arrive. Every minute that goes by without medical care can make the difference between life and death, ultimately contributing to the success of the species.
To report a panther collision or any incident involving an endangered species, call the FWC at 888-404-FWCC.
For more information on panthers, visit www.Floridapanthernet.org
Florida Panther Struck and Killed by Car
The Associated Press
Posted Thursday, June 24th, 2010
IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Wildlife officials say a young panther has died in southwest Florida after being struck by a car.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the 16- to 18-month-old cat was found early Thursday along a road near Immokalee.
A necropsy will be performed, and the animal's remains will be archived at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
It's the 13th panther death this year. Scientists believe between 100 and 120 Florida panthers remain in the wild, though they are running out of habitat.
Population Increase Deadly For Florida Panthers
More of them, more of us ... mortalities
BY THOMAS STEWART • firstname.lastname@example.org • May 26, 2010
Last weekend, three Florida panthers were found dead after being hit by cars.
The deaths, experts say, will continue as long as the cat population and human development increase alongside each other.
With less room to roam and their numbers jumping from an estimated 20 to 30 cats in the early 1990s to between 100 and 120 today, panthers are being forced to cross roadways to find new territory, said Dave Onorato, an associate research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Ten panthers have been found dead this year, according to the FWC. Eight were killed by cars; two died after fighting with other panthers.
The latest was found Sunday in Collier County along U.S. 41.
In 2009, 24 panthers were found dead, including a record 17 that were hit by cars.
“We have animals that are all being crammed into South Florida and because we have more roads and more people and people driving too fast these animals are getting killed,” said Deborah Jansen, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Park Services in Big Cypress National Preserve.
But it’s hard to place all the blame on motorists, Jansen said, because panthers often dart in front of cars, leaving little time to react.
The cats also are more active from dawn to dusk, when visibility is reduced, she said.
The solution, according to Jansen, is to build more places for the animals to cross major roadways.
“The only way we’re going to lessen these mortalities is to have more wildlife underpasses,” she said. The underpasses allow panthers and other animals to safely cross beneath roads.
To be effective, they need to be accompanied by fencing that prevents crossing at other locations. There are 35 underpasses along Interstate 75, Jansen said.
The problem, however, is they are expensive and people find the fencing unattractive.
An inexpensive option would be for motorists to slow down in panther territory, which is often marked by signs, Jansen said.
Unfortunate weekend for panthers shouldn't reverse recent population growth
May 24, 2010 - http://www.myfwc.com/NEWSROOM/10/south/News_10_S_PantherRoadKills.htm
Three panthers in three days met untimely ends on U.S. 41, a highway that cuts right through the middle of panther habitat in Collier County. On Sunday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) found a 6- to 8-month-old kitten that was hit early that morning. Officials with the FWC believed the mother of the kitten could be close to the highway and stepped up law enforcement patrols in the area Sunday.
The panther population has increased five-fold since the 1980s, when the population had dwindled to 20-30. Its increase to a current estimate of 100 is a success story, but one tempered with the knowledge that an increasing population means more opportunity for vehicle collisions.
"Losing three panthers in three days saddens all who care for these endangered animals. However, we're heartened when we have a good capture season like this past one, when we captured 11 new panthers," said Darrell Land, the FWC's panther team leader. "Panthers breed throughout the year, and our radio-collared females have already produced 12 kittens. The increase in panther numbers also means that more panthers are roaming the roadways in the Big Cypress area, and drivers should always obey the panther speed zones and slow down from dusk to dawn no matter where they might be driving."
Land noted that two litters of kittens have been lost because of the death of their mothers in the past two months. Kittens are not able to survive on their own until they are big enough to capture prey at approximately 8 months old.
The natural expansion of the panther population means that panther sightings may start to increase throughout Florida; however, the majority of the population still resides south of Lake Okeechobee.
To help protect the large cats from increasing traffic threats, the FWC, Collier County and Lee County sheriff's deputies and the Florida Highway Patrol regularly enforce panther speed zones. Panther speed zones are well-marked, with speed limits reduced at night to 45 mph.
So far this year, 66 citations and nine warnings have been issued to motorists violating panther speed zones. Motorists should be aware that violators often receive fines exceeding $200 for their first offense, and any violation of more than 29 mph over the posted limit will result in a mandatory court appearance.
"The increasing number of panther road kills mirrors the increase in panther numbers," Land said. "However, this does not indicate that the increase of collisions is causing the population to decrease. The FWC continues to work closely with the Florida Department of Transportation to develop measures that will increase motorist and panther safety along Florida's roads."
FDOT has constructed wildlife crossings, erected fencing and established special panther speed zones, which help lessen the danger to panthers on the roadways.
Panther research and management funding comes directly from the additional fees collected when individuals purchase the "Protect the Florida panther" specialty license plate. Money also goes to law enforcement to increase patrols in the areas where panthers reside in South Florida.
"We can all assist with helping the panther survive," Land said. "Buy a specialty plate to help fund research, management and enforcement. Lots of people will be on the road this Memorial Day weekend, so please slow down in panther speed zones, particularly from dusk to dawn, when panthers are most active."
To purchase a specialty license plate, visit www.buyaplate.com, and to find out more about the Florida panther, visit www.floridapanthernet.org.
Dead Cat Walking Special Report
CLICK HERE to check out this informative St Pete Times special report with video, interactive maps, photo galleries, and more.
Dead Cat Walking: As Florida Panther Habitat Shrinks, Extinction Fears Rise
By Craig Pittman, St. Pete Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, April 18, 2010
On a quiet spring morning two years ago, a sheriff's deputy cruised along a dark suburban street near Fort Myers. The deputy heard a thump, slammed on the brakes. Too late. A tawny body lay cooling by the roadside. The deputy had hit a 2-year-old, 85-pound, male Florida panther. When a veterinarian dissected the cat, he found signs that the endangered Florida panther is in deeper trouble than ever before.
In his May 2008 report, Dr. Mark Cunningham listed three genetic defects — a badly kinked tail, an undescended testicle and, most troubling, a quarter-inch hole in the big cat's heart. Such defects were supposed to be gone from the panther population, vanquished by a bold experiment 15 years ago that involved crossbreeding with Texas cougars.
But now they have resurfaced. And because of a series of decisions made by federal officials, panther experts say fixing the problem this time will be nearly impossible.
In short, the Florida panther is a dead cat walking.
"It's going to be the best-documented extinction ever, unless they do something," said Laurie Wilkins of the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Over the past 15 years, the federal agency in charge of protecting the habitat where panthers roam, hunt and mate has given developers, miners and farmers permission to destroy more than 40,000 acres of it.
The panther is Florida's state animal. It's a license-plate icon, the namesake of Miami's pro hockey team and the mascot of schools around the state. Yet it hasn't received the protection promised by the Endangered Species Act.
• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which spends more than $1.2 million a year on panther protection, has not blocked a single development that altered panther habitat. Former agency employees say every time they tried, "we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster," said Linda Ferrell, who retired from the agency in 2005.
• To bolster the case for allowing development, agency officials have used flawed science. They even manipulated figures to make it appear at one point as if there were surplus panthers.
• Agency officials say they have required developers and others to make up for destroying the habitat. But their own figures show those efforts have fallen short, and now they concede there's not enough habitat left to let the population ever leave the endangered list.
Meanwhile, the panthers are once again producing cats with genetic defects, like the one the deputy hit. In the past seven years, nine have turned up with holes in their hearts.
Cunningham, the veterinarian, calls it "a red flag" that panthers are headed for genetic problems again. There are other signs of trouble, too: changes in their behavior that have proved deadly for suburban cats and dogs.
But because so much of the panthers' habitat has been paved over, officials cannot bring in more Texas cougars, as in 1995.
"Where would we put them? The population is saturated," said Deborah Jansen, who has been studying panthers for 20 years.
The irony isn't lost on those who engineered the panther's original genetic rescue, like Craig Johnson, once the top federal wildlife official in South Florida.
"Numerically they're doing better," Johnson said. "Ecologically, they're screwed."
The panther used to roam the Southeast by the thousands. But for 40 years the elusive animal has been hemmed into Florida's southernmost tip, in one of the state's fastest-growing regions.
"The panther is arguably the greatest species conservation challenge in the country," said Paul Souza, who now supervises the South Florida office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the early 1990s, of the 30 panthers remaining, only six females were producing kittens. Because of inbreeding, many carried potentially fatal birth defects.
"It was like they had hit a biological brick wall," said Melody Roelke, the veterinarian who discovered the genetic problems.
There was talk of captive breeding. Instead the state tried a $20,000 gamble. In 1995, biologists turned loose eight female Texas cougars to breed with the panthers. They replenished the gene pool and boosted the population to about 100. The boom highlighted a bigger problem.
For three decades, biologists have known that maintaining enough habitat for these wide-ranging predators is the key to saving the species. Females need 29,000 acres, males 62,000 acres.
Yet as the population grew, federal officials granted permits that converted panther habitat into a new university, new roads and subdivisions — including one ironically called the Habitat. Since the Texas cougar experiment began, the wildlife service has said yes to 113 projects that if built would wipe out more than 42,000 acres of panther habitat.
Each time developers propose altering habitat, biologists with the wildlife service review the impact on the species. They look at whether it will jeopardize the panthers' existence.
The last time the agency offered what's known as a "jeopardy opinion" on a project in panther habitat was 1993, when it objected to Lee County's plans for widening Corkscrew Road. But then the agency offered county officials a way around its objections. As a result, the road was widened, opening up more habitat for development.
Jay Slack, who ran the agency's South Florida office from 1997 to 2005, said he didn't see anything wrong with allowing developers, miners and farmers to transform so much habitat. After all, he pointed out, thanks to the Texas cougars, "the number of panthers has been steadily on the rise. … It just didn't add up to a risk of extinction."
All in all, Slack said, "I feel like we did a good job."
Most of the projects the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved since 1995 are in Collier County. The largest is the new town of Ave Maria, which in 2005 was given permission to destroy 5,027 acres of habitat that had been 9 miles from the nearest suburb.
Souza, the Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor, said his agency has permitted development only around the edges of panther habitat. But state panther expert and biologist Dave Onorato said Ave Maria "would be considered in the middle of the habitat. It's not just the footprint going in, but also what ensues: roads, stores, houses."
The project with the largest impact is Lee County's $438 million expansion of the Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers. The construction — a new taxiway, a 28-gate terminal, support facilities, 10 miles of internal roads and a 4-mile highway extension —- subtracted 8,000 acres from panther habitat.
The agency said losing those 8,000 acres would further fragment the remaining habitat and make it more likely panthers would be killed by cars. Yet its official opinion said the airport expansion was "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the panther."
The biologist who wrote that said later that he didn't believe it, but feared he would lose his job.
Andy Eller knew the drill. He said his bosses told him not to find any reason to oppose development, because to say no would invite political disaster.
"They were afraid that if we generated any controversy over the Endangered Species Act, Congress would tamper with the funding for the regional office or for the endangered species program," he said in 2004.
Nevertheless, Eller had a hard time approving the airport expansion in 2002. So, he said, his bosses told him to tweak the numbers.
At the time, thanks to the Texas cougars, there were about 78 panthers, but most were too young or too old to breed. Fewer than 10 were producing young. The agency's official goal was to have at least 50 breeding adults.
Eller said he was told to write the opinion as if all 78 panthers were breeding adults. With 28 "surplus" panthers, the airport expansion couldn't possibly lead to the species' extinction.
Eller later wrote that he knew that this "was wrong in so many ways it's hard to know where to start." Nevertheless, "I was told to incorporate the material without questioning it, under threat of insubordination."
Although other biologists objected, the "surplus" panthers were included in half a dozen more project approvals. Eller wrote that his bosses "showed no trepidation about such bold misrepresentations of panther science, known by the entire scientific community to be wrong."
Eller filed a whistle-blower suit against his agency and was fired. He later was reinstated but transferred out of Florida. The agency acknowledged he was right about the science without acknowledging anything improper.
Last year, Sam Hamilton, then the agency's regional director in Atlanta, was asked by a reporter for a Maryland-based newsletter that reports on endangered species issues to explain the "surplus panthers" problem. Hamilton shrugged it off as a typo. His staff had simply "transposed numbers. … Didn't make a whole lot of difference in the end."
Last summer, President Barack Obama picked Hamilton to take over the entire Fish and Wildlife Service. In February, he died of a heart attack. A month before his death, a Times reporter asked Hamilton why former employees said he had repeatedly declined to sign jeopardy opinions in panther habitat.
Hamilton jabbed a finger at the reporter and sputtered, "That's not true!" He contended he would never do anything to hurt panthers: "I love cats! Cougars, pumas — they're my No. 1!"
Hamilton insisted he had never rejected any recommendation for a jeopardy opinion. Asked if he had ever even been handed such a recommendation, he said: "Not that I remember."
But Johnson, the former top federal wildlife official in South Florida, said he saw panther biologists seek approval for more than a dozen jeopardy opinions. The way the system worked was simple: "If it was 'no jeopardy,' I could sign it. If it was 'jeopardy,' then I had to get the regional director to sign it."
Every time Florida biologists proposed a jeopardy opinion to the Atlanta office, Johnson said, "the answer was always: The panthers aren't there yet." That was with fewer than 50 left.
Linda Ferrell, who was once Eller's boss, said the Florida biologists were pressured by top agency officials to always say yes to development.
"We were told in no uncertain terms, jeopardy opinions would not be tolerated," she said.
The crucial factor was ignoring what's called "cumulative impact," Ferrell said. An individual development might not jeopardize the panther's existence. But combined with the projects that came before it, the cumulative loss of habitat showed the species was in jeopardy.
Eller and his colleagues tried to cite cumulative impact, Ferrell said. But the agency bosses "just shot the biologists down. Management made the decision that it wasn't an issue."
In January, Hamilton said he agreed with that. "You have to look at the project itself," rather than lumping it in with all the others, he insisted.
However, six years ago, a federal judge told Hamilton's agency the law required just the opposite. U.S. District Judge James Robertson tossed out a permit for a 6,000-acre mine because the agency failed to consider cumulative impact on panthers.
"When considered in isolation, most individual projects would impact only small portions of potential panther habitat," the judge wrote. "However, when multiplied by many projects over a long time period of time, the cumulative impact on the panther might be significant."
Souza contended that the Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed development of panther habitat only if the developers made up for the destruction.
The federal agency is supposed to follow a policy of "no net loss" of habitat. But creating new habitat to replace what's being altered is nearly impossible.
So the agency counts land that will be preserved from development as newly created habitat. That way, what's preserved can, at least on paper, make up for what's lost. The other option is writing a check to a fund for buying habitat to preserve it.
Pursuing this strategy, Souza said, "allowed us to not need jeopardy opinions."
However, even if preserving undeveloped land could make up for losing habitat, the agency would flunk its "no net loss" test.
Since 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service has required the preservation of 30,000 acres of panther habitat. That's 12,000 acres less than what it has allowed to be destroyed.
For the 8,000-acre airport expansion near Fort Myers, for instance, the agency required Lee County to preserve about 6,000 acres. In some cases the difference is even more lopsided. For a highway project that took nearly 2,000 acres, the agency did not require preserving an acre.
Agency officials say they hope to make up some of the lost habitat with a new restoration project. Estimated cost to taxpayers: $435 million.
To biologist Larry Richardson of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the big cats are worth saving because they are "an icon to show us what true wilderness is."
Yet as humans encroach further into what used to be wilderness, panthers have changed their behavior to adapt.
It was common for males to kill each other in a dispute over territory. But beginning in 2001, males started killing females, too.
"It's because of density," said Roelke, the veterinarian who discovered the genetic problems. "These cats have no place to go."
The leading cause of death used to be males killing other males. Now, because of new roads, the panthers' worst enemy is the car. Last year, a record 17 cats were run over.
As more and more people crowd into the panthers' home, panthers are showing up in the suburbs. Unable to find the deer and hogs that usually are their prey, they attack pets and livestock. Among the dead: goats, sheep and a 200-pound colt.
"We know they are taking pets periodically, whether it's dogs or cats," said Onorato, the state panther expert.
Alan Webb, who oversees the Florida biologists who write opinions on development, regards what's left of panther habitat as not a wilderness but "a zoo without walls." Between tracking them with radio collars and tinkering with genetics, he said, "we manage all the panthers."
Actually, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now managing for fewer panthers than the 100 prowling the state's forests and swamps.
The agency's official position is that it is trying to protect enough habitat for 90 panthers, no more. The agency is doing that to attempt to balance the explosive growth of the region with the need to keep the panther population viable, Souza explained.
"If the number of panthers falls under 60, then we've got real problems," he said. "If it's 80 to 100, it's going to be a stable population, albeit one that is going to have genetic problems over time." So the agency split the difference and is managing for 90.
Florida experts say that's wrong. They have told federal officials "they should be managing for more panthers, not less," said Onorato. "A population of 90 is not going to be a viable population. You're not preserving the species."
Actually, federal officials have written off the South Florida population. Studies have found that, to avoid extinction and genetic problems, the panther population would have to be at least 240 animals and "there's not enough habitat in South Florida to support 240 animals," Souza said. Instead, he said, the agency expects that South Florida remnant to serve as "a feeder population for starting a cat population in other places."
Federal officials have talked for 30 years of finding new places for panthers —- in Arkansas or Georgia, for instance —- but have yet to do anything. Hamilton said Central Florida is "the first place we need to look." But it would have to be a "win-win deal for the private landowners."
The human encroachment into panther territory isn't over. Developers are planning another new town, named Big Cypress. It would put 9,000 homes on 3,600 acres abutting the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Panthers wearing radio collars have crossed that land 20 times.
The question all Floridians should ask, said the refuge's Richardson, is whether they want to make the sacrifices necessary to save the panther. If they don't, everyone will bear the responsibility for allowing the state animal to fade into oblivion.
"And what would be the next animal that we'll choose to not save?" Richardson asked. "And at what point in time does our choice affect ourselves?"
Times researcher Caryn Baird and multimedia producer Carrie Pratt contributed to this report, which contains information from the Endangered Species and Wetlands Report newsletter. Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or email@example.com.
About this report
This report on the loss of Florida panther habitat builds on previous reporting done for articles in 2005 and 2006 regarding Florida's vanishing wetlands. Over more than two years, Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman interviewed 50 people, analyzed thousands of pages of documents and made numerous visits to areas of South Florida where panther habitat bumped up against new suburbs.
Coming Monday, Saga Of Florida Panther Is 'Sordid Story' (continued below)
Federal officials convened a panel of experts to map the Florida panther habitat that needed saving — then failed to even publish the report.
Saga Of Florida Panther Is 'Sordid Story'
By Craig Pittman, St Pete Times Staff Writer
In Print: Monday, April 19, 2010
Although federal officials have talked of moving panthers out of South Florida for 20 years, they have yet to draw up any plans for such a step. Meanwhile Arkansas officials say they do not want the panthers moved there. 1. Ozark National Forest 2. Ouachita National Forest 3. Southwest Arkansas 4. Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge 5. Kisatchie National Forest 6. Homochitto National Forest 7. Southwest Alabama 8. Apalachicola National Forest 9. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Source: Identifying Suitable Sites for Florida Panther Reintroduction study, Cindy A. Thatcher, et al
[DARLA CAMERON | Times]
Second of two parts
It seemed like a good plan: gather the top experts on the Florida panther. Put them with experts on mapping and computer models. Ask them to figure out how much land panthers really need.
Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would use the results as the ultimate panther plan, a guide to regulating development in panther habitat and saving the species from extinction.
The panel met for two tumultuous years. The experts argued, but finally, in 2002, produced a 191-page report — complete with maps — that showed what the federal agency needed to do to help panthers. The report included 25 pages of detailed recommendations on how to preserve the habitat.
"All these people who don't agree on some things agreed on what should be done," said University of Florida scientist Tom Hoctor, who served on the panel.
More than seven years later, the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to publish that report. Instead of following the recommendations, the agency approved building new suburbs, malls and mines where panthers lived.
"It's frustrating to see this habitat is going to be broken up by homes now," said panelist Deborah Jansen, a panther expert with the National Park Service.
The report's findings have become the basis of a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is pursuing an alternate plan put together by consultants for developers.
"It's a pretty sordid story," Hoctor said. The saga is "a great case study in the mixture of science, politics and the Endangered Species Act."
Dawn Jennings, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, assembled the panel of experts in 1999.
"This region is losing an incredible amount of habitat to development," she wrote to a colleague, "and we need to know how much habitat loss the panther can sustain before the population is no longer viable."
The panel included Jansen, who has studied panthers since 1981 and once tried to give a dying one mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Roy McBride, who captured his first Florida panther in 1973; and Dave Maehr, a University of Kentucky professor who had published the best-known scientific studies on panthers. Joining them were Hoctor, mapping ace Randy Kautz and University of Tennessee computer modeler Jane Comiskey.
The group was given an unwieldy name that linked it with the government's $10 billion Everglades restoration project. The Multi-Species Ecosystem Recovery Implementation Team, or MERIT, was supposed to oversee how the restoration would help every Everglades species. The group Jennings set up, which would be the template for the rest, was the Panther MERIT Subteam.
Kautz said federal officials said the group had one mission: "Show me the landscape that needs to be protected for the panther."
At their first meeting in December 1999, Jennings' boss, Jay Slack, promised that their report would guide the Fish and Wildlife Service in reviewing development permits.
Soon, other people began showing up to watch them work. Tim Durham and Bruce Johnson from WilsonMiller, an engineering company employed by the region's biggest developers, "were there at almost every meeting," Hoctor said.
They repeatedly objected that the Subteam was trying to include too much of their clients' property in protected habitat. They "were adamant the zones should be more reduced," Hoctor said. The fear was that classifying too much land as critical habitat would unfairly limit the property rights of the owners, many of whose families had held the land for generations.
Meanwhile, the Subteam was breaking apart over the scientific credibility of one of its members.
From 1985 to 1994, Maehr had headed up the state's panther capture program. He became the face of panther science, publishing research papers, speaking to civic groups and reporters.
But behind the scenes, his work got him in trouble. At one point, he led his capture team onto the Seminole Tribe reservation without informing the tribe. He swore his team to silence, then doctored his notes to hide the trespassing. He was later reprimanded for falsifying data.
In 1994, while Maehr was facing charges of insubordination, his boss announced he would be replaced as team leader. Maehr quit. Two weeks later he showed up as a developer's consultant.
The biggest project he worked on was Florida Gulf Coast University, helping persuade Fish and Wildlife Service officials to overrule their staff's objections.
In 1995, Maehr teamed with mapping expert James Cox for what a later scientific review termed "the most influential paper on panther habitat." Published in the journal Conservation Biology, it said radio collar signals showed panthers preferred forests over other habitat. It said the marshes of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve were poor habitat.
But that wasn't what Maehr's data showed. He had thrown out everything that didn't fit his own theories, said Cox, who at the time deferred to Maehr's judgment as the top panther expert.
What's more, the readings were collected only during the day, when panthers sleep. So the paper had "nothing on foraging or travel," Cox said. "(Maehr) said, 'It's the best we've got.' He didn't appreciate how this might bias the picture."
Cox said their paper should never have been used for decisions on development permits. But federal officials gave developers permission to wipe out swamps, marshes and smaller forest patches because Maehr repeatedly assured them it would have no effect on the panthers' future.
At the meetings, McBride and Jansen teamed with Comiskey to question Maehr's work. "What we were seeing in the field didn't match up to what was in his papers," McBride said.
Maehr, complaining about "personal attacks," stopped attending meetings. He died in a plane crash in 2008.
Federal officials called in four outside experts in 2003 to review every scientific study on panthers. The scientists urged regulators to stop basing decisions on Maehr's science "immediately." However, two years would go by before federal officials — prodded by a whistle-blower suit — finally stopped.
Despite the uproar, the Subteam's report neared completion. The team had created maps showing three areas of habitat:
• The primary zone, the 3,548 square miles currently occupied by panthers. Keeping it intact was crucial to the species' future, the team agreed.
• The secondary zone, 1,200 square miles that weren't occupied by panthers, but could be restored to become habitat.
• The dispersal zone, a 43-square-mile corridor that averaged 3 miles wide. If preserved, it would allow panthers to move north into Central Florida.
The primary zone covered a vast swath, purposely including not just forests and swamps but also pastures, citrus groves and other areas not usually associated with panthers.
If they had confined their work to the remaining South Florida wilderness, the result would have been "a Swiss cheese map," Hoctor said. The panel agreed this wasn't sufficient. Panthers need buffers around their habitat to protect them from humans, he said.
In their long list of recommendations was a doozy: declaring all three zones "critical habitat."
That was a step the wildlife agency had long avoided, one strongly opposed by the agency's regional boss in Atlanta, Sam Hamilton. The designation would make it harder to turn habitat into subdivisions, farms or mines. The agency had never designated land as critical for panthers, then repeatedly cited that lack of critical habitat as a reason to allow development.
In April 2002, Jennings briefed her boss at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Slack, on what the group had come up with. In her notes from the briefing, Jennings said Slack questioned whether the Subteam had gone too far.
He wondered if all the land the Subteam had mapped was really "essential for the long-term persistence of cats in South Florida?" Jennings wrote that Slack told her to "address concerns that … zones appear to cover more area than is necessary."
The group got the message. Slack "didn't like the direction we were headed," Hoctor said.
Slack said he doesn't remember those discussions, or what became of the Subteam's report.
"I don't know how it all transpired at the end," said Slack, who was promoted to a job outside Florida three years later. "My understanding was, it evolved."
Although they didn't know it then, the meeting of the panther team on Aug. 22, 2002, was its last. They went over their final draft, expecting to be called for further polishing before it was published, but never were.
A December 2002 memo for Washington officials said the report was "undergoing internal review" in Florida, then would go to Atlanta and Washington for approval before it was made public.
But every time someone from the Subteam checked, Comiskey said, they were told it was still being reviewed.
Years passed. The panelists grew so frustrated they reworked the report to get it published in a scientific journal. The 16-page version in the February 2006 edition of Conservation Biology included a map of the three zones, but lacked the original's detail, including the 25 pages of recommendations.
"We were convened to produce this document and then they wouldn't let us do it," Comiskey said. And according to Kautz, after the panther report stalled, the promise of a MERIT plan for other Everglades species "just sort of fizzled out."
On the day President Barack Obama was sworn in, an environmental group, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, filed a petition asking that the primary zone be declared "critical habitat" for the panther. Although five Florida congressmen echoed that request, the Fish and Wildlife Service said no. Now a coalition that includes the Conservancy and the Sierra Club is suing to overturn that decision.
In an interview in January, Hamilton — by then the boss of the whole Fish and Wildlife Service — said he preferred a new plan backed by Collier County's big property owners.
"The success of panther conservation lies with the private landowners," said Hamilton, who died of a heart attack in February.
This plan for guiding growth across 200,000 acres of the primary zone was created by WilsonMiller. It has been endorsed by the Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon of Florida and the Florida Wildlife Federation. They have decided they can't depend on federal regulators to save the panther, explained Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife.
The plan is not based on the Subteam's report, which WilsonMiller's Durham has compared to a high school science paper.
Durham explained later in an interview that the Subteam "mapped a huge area, which is good for broad planning purposes. But when you look at individual properties in that area, it lacks flexibility."
The WilsonMiller plan calls for the major landowners to set aside thousands of acres for preservation. In exchange they get to build new towns in the primary zone such as the one proposed by a WilsonMiller client that would put 9,000 homes and a mall on land used by panthers.
To Hoctor, the WilsonMiller map is exactly the Swiss cheese map that the Subteam rejected.
"What they're proposing is a loss of primary zone," he said. "That would lead to extinction."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About this report
This report on the loss of Florida panther habitat builds on previous reporting done for articles in 2005 and 2006 regarding Florida's vanishing wetlands. Over more than two years, Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman interviewed 50 people, analyzed thousands of pages of documents and made numerous visits to areas of South Florida where panther habitatitat bumped up against new suburbs.
But notes from a 2002 meeting show the head of the agency's South Florida office, Jay Slack, questioned whether they had included too much private property, which would upset the region's big developers.
After Slack raised questions about the draft report, plans to publish and use it for making decisions on development permits fell apart. The report was never published by the agency.
In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assembled an expert panel that included scientists, a mapping expert and a computer modeler to figure out what land needed to be protected to guarantee the survival of the Florida panther.
Instead the Fish and Wildlife Service is
pursuing a habitat plan more favorable to the landowners that was drawn up by developer consultants WilsonMiller. A member of the original scientific panel
says the WilsonMiller plan could "lead
The Florida Panther: Facts And Figures
St Pete Times staff
In Print: Sunday, April 18, 2010
• The Florida panther was declared the state animal in 1982, chosen over the manatee and the alligator by a vote of the state's schoolchildren.
• They were on the original endangered species list, issued in 1967.
• When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, there were only 20 to 30 panthers left. Some state officials even believed they were extinct.
• The World Wildlife Fund hired a Texas puma hunter, Roy McBride, to travel to Florida in 1972 and find out if there were any panthers left. He found signs of panthers, and in 1973 captured one near Lake Okeechobee, a gaunt, tick-infested 9-year-old female.
• The average lifespan of a Florida panther in the wild is 12 years.
• Males average 130 pounds and measure 6 to 8 feet with the tail, while females average 80 pounds and measure 5 to 7 feet including the tail.
• Bobcats, which are far more common in the wild and more widely seen across the state, are often confused with panthers. But the Florida bobcat is much smaller than the Florida panther — in fact, it's not much larger than a domestic cat.
• Since 1990, much of the state's research into the Florida panther is financed by sales of the Florida panther specialty license plate. The plate brought in more than $1.3 million in 2008, the year with the most recent figures.
• Their scientific name is Puma concolor coryi, a name that honors the first scientist to describe the Florida panther, Charles Cory.
• Panthers are nocturnal animals. They sleep during the day and hunt, travel and mate at night.
• Scientists first began capturing panthers and attaching radio collars to them in 1981. Using signals from the radio collars they can study their movements. However, scientists do not have collars on all panthers. Currently 28 have them.
• In the 29 years since the panther-capture program began, only one panther has died during a capture. The tranquilizer dart intended to put the animal to sleep hit an artery, delivering the dosage too quickly. Controversy over the death nearly ended the program. Meanwhile, the animal was stuffed and put on display in Tallahassee. It currently stands near the entrance to the State Library of Florida.
• McBride still tracks panthers, now for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He calculates the panther population not only by studying the data from radio-tracking signals, but also from looking for signs they leave behind in the landscape: tracks, scat, scrapes and scratches on trees.
• Florida panthers do not roar. They do make sounds, though: chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls and hisses.
• Their preferred diet consists of deer, wild hogs and some smaller animals, such as raccoons and armadillos.
• Panthers stalk their prey, moving in quietly. Although they do not chase down the deer and wild hogs they eat, they can spring as far as 15 feet for the kill. Panthers usually kill large prey by a bite to the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord.
• Panther kittens are reared by their mother in a den. The average litter size is two kittens.
• When kittens' eyes first open they are blue. Young cats' fur is spotted, and they have five rings on their tails. As they get older their eyes darken, and their fur and tail become more of a uniform tawny shade. There are no Florida panthers that are black.
• The mother leaves the kittens alone in the den to go out and forage for food. After making a kill, she will eat as much as she can and will return to the den to nurse her kittens.
• When the kittens are about 2 months old, they begin to tag along with their mother when she hunts. By 9 to 12 months they are catching small prey on their own, such as raccoons and armadillos.
Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Still Florida panthers
In the early 1990s Florida panthers were suffering from genetic problems that could have doomed the species. So in 1995, the state imported eight female Texas cougars to breed with the panthers. The genetic diversity was refreshed and the population boomed. The cougars were removed from the wild by 2003. The original kittens produced by the crossbreeding are considered Florida panthers and therefore fall under the Endangered Species Act just like purebred ones. The reason: Historically, back when panthers roamed the Southeast, the Florida panther subspecies interbred with the Texas subspecies.
DEADLY CROSSROADS - The State Of The Florida Panther
NaplesNews.com issued an informative special multi-media report on our endangered Florida Panther.
The report also includes great photos and videos.
Please CLICK HERE to check it out.
Florida Road System To Warn Of Panthers
by Kevin Lollar
March 23, 2010
State and federal agencies are going high-tech to prevent Florida panther roadkill.
This summer, the Florida Department of Transportation will install a series of roadside animal detection systems (RADS) along a section of U.S. 41 near Bass Lake Road within Big Cypress National Preserve.
The detection systems warn motorists that wildlife is near the road. The project will cost $650,000, which comes from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant.
“RADS are used out West and in the Midwest, and they’re showing it’s pretty effective,” said Chris Piazza, a state transportation department project development engineer. “It’s reduced a lot of vehicle collisions with larger species like mule deer.
“We’re hoping our system will work with smaller species like panthers and bears,” Piazza said.
The Florida panther is an endangered species, with about 100 left in the wild.
Last year, 17 panthers were killed by vehicles; the single-year record for roadkill panther deaths is 25, set in 2007.
So far this year, vehicles have killed two panthers, both in Collier County.
Several kinds of warning systems are on the market, including one that shoots a laser beam parallel to a road: When an animal breaks the beam, lights flash to warn drivers.
A ground-penetrating detection system senses vibrations made by animals approaching a road.
“We’re evaluating both,” Piazza said. “If we get both out there, and if they’re effective, we could potentially set the standard for the state.”
Bids for the project will be opened June 8 with final selection of the contractor June 14.
Construction could begin as early as July.
In all, the detection systems will cover 1.3 miles of U.S. 41, an area where five panthers were hit by vehicles from May 1996 through April 2009 (data on how many of those animals died were not available Monday).
Since State Road 84 was expanded to become Alligator Alley — construction was completed in 1993 — the most effective protections against roadkill have been wildlife crossings (tunnels under Interstate 75 and continuous fencing from just east of Golden Gate Estates to the eastern boundary of Big Cypress National Preserve).
To protect cats along U.S. 41, state and federal agencies have decided to try new technology.
“We had a public meeting, and there was a lot of public sentiment against fencing and building additional crossings,” wildlife service spokesman Ken Warren said. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s look at alternatives.’ This technology is out there. There are success stories.”
If the detection systems work on U.S. 41, additional systems might be installed at other roadkill hot spots, Warren said.
“Right now, we’re optimistic that the use of this technology will prove another tool in our kit in terms of reducing threats to panthers,” he said.
State Spending $650,000 For Sensors To Alert U.S. 41 Drivers Panthers May Be Near
By ERIC STAATS
Published March 20, 2010
NAPLES — As U.S. 41 runs through the Big Cypress National Preserve, the rural highway crosses a natural pathway that is a favorite route for endangered Florida panthers, with deadly results.
Now, the hot spot for collisions between vehicles and panthers is in line for a Western-style approach to reducing panther roadkill in South Florida.
Backed by conservation groups, the Florida Department of Transportation plans to install devices on a 1.3-mile stretch of U.S. 41 west of Turner River Road to detect animals and activate warning signs to alert motorists.
The $650,000 plan is an alternative to a controversial proposal to install two wildlife crossings, a more proven but more expensive way to reduce panther-vehicle collisions, beneath that segment of the highway.
The big question is whether a Roadside Animal Detection System, or RADS, will work.
“It seems promising, but it must be considered experimental,” said RADS expert Marcel Huijser, a road ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.
Florida has never used roadside detection systems before, and the DOT plans to study the effectiveness of the one at Turner River, said Chris Piazza, a DOT project development engineer.
If the experiment is a success, it could give scientists a new way to tackle one of the biggest threats to the endangered state symbol of Florida.
“We’re fairly optimistic this can be another technology to put in our tool kit in our efforts to address threats to the Florida panther,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said.
Scientists say between 100 and 120 panthers roam South Florida and increasingly are being pinched by growth.
In 2009, mostly in Lee and Collier counties, 17 panthers were killed on roads, setting a grisly record.
So far this year, two panthers have been killed by vehicles in Collier County.
Since 1984, eight panthers have been struck by vehicles along the same 2.5-mile stretch of road on either side of the Turner River; five of them have been killed.
Some conservation advocates count a sixth roadkill there after a canoe trip guide found a dead panther south of U.S. 41 in the Turner River in October. State biologists haven’t found officially that the panther was struck by a vehicle.
Six of the collisions, including four of the deaths, have occurred since 2004.
In one particularly wrenching episode, a female panther was injured along the stretch of road in July 2004 and her kitten was killed a month later.
After the mother panther had recuperated, the cat was released back into the wild, only to find its way back to Turner River, where it was struck and killed by a vehicle in May 2005.
DOT acknowledges that it “has an issue out there,” said Piazza, the agency’s project development engineer.
“Whatever we do hopefully will have some effect on reducing that rate (of panther-vehicle collisions),” he said.
Piazza said the DOT plans to request proposals from contractors later this month and have the work under way by July 1.
Most roadside systems use electronic motion or thermal infrared sensors installed on poles above the ground.
The sensors are triggered when animals either step into a cone-shaped zone or block a beam sent from a transmitter.
An underground system being tested in Colorado triggers a warning to drivers when an electromagnetic field is disturbed.
Studies in Arizona, Minnesota and Montana have shown that the systems can reduce collisions with elk and deer by between 55 percent and 90 percent, Huijser said.
Those animals are larger than Florida panthers, though, and the roads often cut through open plains rather than dense swamps.
Other experiments have shown that humidity, temperature, wind, rain and fog can make some systems less reliable, he said.
Roadside detection systems have a more fundamental problem than the weather, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land.
They are aimed at modifying motorists’ behavior rather than modifying panthers’ behavior, he said.
“It won’t keep animals from getting on the road,” Land said.
The systems could be deployed more quickly and for less money than wildlife crossings, which can take millions of dollars and years to build, Land said.
But there is “a lot of evaluation to do” before he could recommend roadside detection systems as interim or permanent panther protection measures, he said.
Conservation groups are eager to get the system up and running.
“We don’t know that it will work, but we’re very hopeful,” said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife.
Defenders had been pushing the DOT to install wildlife crossings at Turner River until the plan erupted in controversy.
Hunters balked, saying fences associated with the crossings would block traditional public access into the Big Cypress National Preserve from U.S. 41.
Indian tribes that live in the Everglades said the fences would cut off access to sacred cultural sites and interrupt travel routes for other animals.
The roadside detection system is getting lukewarm backing from some wildlife crossing opponents.
“If it will work, I support it,” said sportsman Frank Denninger, of Hialeah. “It’s worth a try.”
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.
650-Acre Fire Will Help Save Florida Panther
Posted: Mar 25, 2010
COLLIER COUNTY - A 650-acre controlled fire burned Thursday in the Everglades in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, land considered the core of panther territory in Southwest Florida.
Thursday's burn was not to destroy the natural habitat but to maintain it.
"The primary goal of the refuge is to protect and to ensure Florida's panther habitat," said Fire Management Officer Kim Ernstrom.
The fire burned thick brush which will be recycled back into the soil and will allow for new vegetation to grow. The new vegetation will feed the deer, which feeds the panther.
"If we have a healthy deer population, we'll in turn have a healthy panther population," said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist, Larry Richardson.
Richardson says the area of the controlled burn hasn't been maintained since 2002.
Lawsuit Accuses Obama Admin. Of Failing To Protect
By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
February 19, 2010
SARASOTA — A coalition of environmental and civic groups sued the Obama administration Thursday over its refusal to declare 1.3 million acres as critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther.
The suit, announced at a news conference led by national and state officials of the Sierra Club, targets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has not blocked any development in panther habitat since 1993.
"It is a scandal that we are filing this lawsuit," said Carl Pope, national president of the Sierra Club, blasting federal officials for allowing the loss of panther habitat. He contended that the panther, Florida's state animal, is on the verge "of being pushed over the edge into extinction."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said his agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Panthers once roamed the Southeast, but now only about 100 panthers remain in the wild, prowling the swamps and forests south of the Caloosahatchee River in South Florida.
Although they have been classified as endangered since the first endangered list was issued in 1967, the agency has never designated any place as critical to spare from development —- a fact the agency frequently cites when approving projects that alter panther habitat.
In 2002 a group of panther and habitat mapping experts who were convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the federal agency declare the area where the panthers now live as critical habitat. Doing so would subject any plans to alter that habitat — by development, farming or mining — to increased regulatory scrutiny and additional requirements to make up for the loss of land. It would also make it harder to spend federal money on new roads there.
But the agency did not follow that recommendation. Since then it has twice rejected petitions by environmental groups requesting it declare critical habitat. In one case, it said it feared that putting additional protections on panther habitat would "cause unintended harm by inducing negative public sentiment" toward the animal.
Instead, the agency is now working with a separate coalition of environmental groups and Collier County's major landowners to craft a cooperative plan to protect some habitat while still allowing development.
Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups working on the plan, warned that the lawsuit is likely to "damage future efforts to restore the panther within areas of its historic range." And Tom Reese, who represents the Florida Wildlife Federation in negotiations on the plan, contended that their plan will offer stronger protections than any "critical habitat" designation.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fort Myers Thursday, concerns more than 3 million acres in fast-growing Collier, Lee and Hendry counties. So far no hearing or trial dates have been scheduled, said Gary Davis, the attorney for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, one of the groups joining the Sierra Club in pursuing the case. The others are the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council of Civic Associations, a Bonita Springs activist group. Federal officials have two months to respond.
Another environmental group, Wildlaw, sought in 2003 to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare critical habitat for the panther. It took the agency five years to say no. At the time, environmental activists blamed the Bush administration's well-known dislike for the Endangered Species Act.
So on the day President Barack Obama took office, the conservancy filed a new critical habitat petition, and it was soon joined by the other environmental groups. Their petitions are based on the 2002 scientific findings from the experts convened by the agency itself.
Conservancy officials have met repeatedly with Obama administration officials to urge them to take action, and even lined up five Florida members of Congress to join in a letter encouraging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to provide the panther with enhanced habitat protection.
But last week, in a letter signed by Paul Souza, the head of the agency's South Florida office, the Fish and Wildlife Service again rejected the idea of a critical habitat designation, explaining, "We believe our current strategy and priorities are the best paths forward at this time."
Florida Panther Advocates Sue Obama Administration
By ERIC STAATS
February 18, 2010
A dispute over the future of the endangered Florida panther has put plans for a proposed new town east of Naples on hold and resulted in a lawsuit in federal court in Fort Myers.
For starters, five conservation groups sued the Obama administration Thursday over its rejection of the groups’ petitions to add permitting hurdles for projects proposed in panther territory.
The lawsuit asks a judge to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department to start the process of designating 3 million acres in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.
“This is not optional,” Sierra Club CEO Carl Pope said from Sarasota, where the groups announced their lawsuit. “This is the law.”
Other plaintiffs are the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council for Civic Associations.
The critical habitat designation would overlap with the site of the new town of Big Cypress, planned for 9,000 homes on 2,800 acres in rural Collier County.
Big Cypress developer Collier Enterprises announced Wednesday that it is delaying its bid for permits to await the outcome of a federal review of a rival plan to protect Florida panther habitat.
The plan, called a Habitat Conservation Plan or HCP, has been proposed by a coalition of large landowners in eastern Collier County teamed up with the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida, Collier County Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.
It could take two years or more to complete the HCP review process plus a minimum of 60 to 90 day public comment period, according to a statement from Collier Enterprises.
The company said a key factor in its decision to put permitting on hold was the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rejection of the critical habitat petitions last week.
In its decision letter, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it preferred the collaborative approach of the HCP project to a critical habitat designation.
An HCP would allow development in some areas in return for putting other areas in preserve, while a critical habitat designation would forbid projects that would “result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat” for panthers.
“It really should be called an HTP, a Habitat Trade Plan,” Center for Biological Diversity advocate Michael Robinson said.
Florida panthers are running out of room to roam in South Florida.
The introduction of Texas cougars to South Florida helped boost the panther population from a low point of 30 animals to between 100 and 120 panthers.
At the same time, though, panthers are losing habitat to roads and development.
In 2009, 17 panthers were killed after getting hit by vehicles, setting a new record for panther roadkills.
The HCP proposal is part of a larger plan to create two new travel routes for panthers, build additional wildlife crossings at hot-spots for panther roadkills and increase federal mitigation requirements.
The critical habitat lawsuit is “no threat” to the HCP, Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
“The HCP is moving along,” she said.
If the lawsuit is successful, it will touch off a debate over where the critical habitat lines should be drawn that would last beyond her lifetime, Payton said.
“Meanwhile it does nothing for the panther,” she said.
Georgian Killer Of Wandering Florida Panther Gets Off
Georgia authorities have decided not to file criminal charges against a hunter who shot and killed a panther in 2008 in Troup County, but a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation is under way.
The hunter, Dave Adams of Newnan, GA, killed the big cat Nov. 16, 2008, with a muzzleloader while hunting from a tree stand on public Corps of Engineers land near West Point Lake.
It was first thought to be an escaped pet. Eight months later, however, tests performed by the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Maryland conformed the 140-pound cat was a Florida panther -- and a federally protected endangered species.
Melissa Cummings, spokeswoman for Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division, told me last week there will be no state charges and referred further questions to federal authorities.
Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said his agency's inquiry remains open and incomplete. "We do still have an open case on the panther shooting in Troup County," he said, adding that he cannot provide additional details until there is a disposition.
Please Sign A Quick Petition To Save The Endangered Florida Panther.
Click Here To Take Action For The Endangered Florida Panther.
Last year, 24 panthers were killed. A record seventeen were lost to vehicle collisions. One was illegally shot, three died in territory conflicts and two deaths, including the brutal beheading of panther UCFP132, remain under investigation.
Last year, in Troup County, Georgia, a deer hunter sitting in a tree shot and killed a panther. Because there are no wild panthers in Georgia, authorities weren't too concerned. After all, they thought, a nonexistent wild animal can't be endangered or protected. They thought wrong.
Recently, DNA testing revealed that the animal was actually a federally protected Florida panther that had wandered hundreds of miles north of his namesake state. (Florida panthers once ranged throughout the southeastern U.S., but now survive in just 5 percent of their original territory.)
WHAT IF IT WAS THE LAST FLORIDA PANTHER?
Sponsored by: Sierra Club
What: Petition To Save Critical Habitat for the Florida Panther
Target: Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
No protected habitat exists for the Florida panther, the only big cat east of the Mississippi. And fewer than 100 individual panthers remain, making the Florida Panther one of America's most endangered species.
Scientists conclude that the panther's existing habitat is the bare minimum needed for the remaining population to survive. Seven panthers have already been killed on south Florida highways this year, with an additional 24 panthers killed by vehicles in the preceding two years. This situation must not continue.
The Interior Department has the ability under the Endangered Species Act to protect the remaining habitat now.
Urge Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther by clicking the link below!
Click Here To Take Action For The Endangered Florida Panther..
A Love Affair With Panthers, for the Moment
By NATALIE ANGIER
The New York Times
January 4, 2010
As David Onorato of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission carefully opened the giant refrigerator where the bodies were kept, I couldn’t help myself. My heart raced. My muscles tensed. Every cheesy freezer horror scene from the movies and “The Sopranos” flitted through my mind, and I almost covered my eyes but knew how ridiculous that would be.
Yet when the partly frozen female panther was finally laid out on a metal table, the sight was not scary or grisly. It was pure, plain sadness. The vultures may have pecked out her eyes and begun rummaging around beneath her tail, but still the 4-year-old panther was an 80-pound muscular masterpiece, her canines as thick and polished as coffee cup handles, her tawny fur still softly bristly to the touch.
The carcass had been recovered from the side of the road a day earlier, another case of big cat meets bigger motorized vehicle in a year that was full of them: 17 endangered Florida panthers were killed by cars and trucks in 2009, the valedictory victim a 3-month-old kitten, as young panthers are called, found on New Year’s Eve. Add in the seven other panthers that were killed by gunshot, one another or “causes unknown,” and the mortality rate seems insupportably high for a wild population estimated at maybe 110 breeding adults.
Yet if there is any bright note to be extracted from the death ledgers, it’s that the wild panthers slinking in and around the Everglades — the sole surviving tribe of Puma concolor east of the Mississippi — are apparently breeding avidly enough to replace their fallen numbers. The traffic fatalities are terrible, said Dr. Onorato, but “we must remember there’s reproduction going on, some of which we don’t document.”
Call them panthers, pumas, cougars or mountain lions, but cats they remain, and cats have a defiantly syncopated way of coming back again and again. As Dr. Onorato and other researchers see it, the tale of the Florida panther is twitchier and more sinuous than its long tail, a continuing saga of highs and lows, hopes and oh nos.
On the one hand, the population in South Florida is stable and possibly even growing by small increments. On the other, the animal is nowhere near meeting the standards necessary for removal from the endangered species list — the existence of three distinct populations of at least 240 adults each, somewhere in the southeastern United States. Moreover, scientists recognize that if economic revival brings fresh rounds of development that intrude into panther habitat, even the extant Florida population could once again suffer.
Floridians love their panthers. At the behest of enthusiastic students, the panther was designated the official state animal in 1982. Of all the specialized license plates in Florida, the panther plate is among the most popular, bringing in more than $1 million a year. “All of our research and management, our budget, equipment — everything — is supported by purchases of these cat tags,” said Dr. Onorato, one of five state researchers devoted entirely to studying the biology and conservation of the panther.
Some biologists worry that at least part of the infatuation is predicated on the Florida panther’s impeccable record. In contrast with mountain lions in California and other Western states, which have been known to ambush, kill and partly consume the occasional jogger or hiker, there are no recorded cases of a Florida panther’s attacking a human being.
Some have suggested that the distinction in how the two cougar populations comport themselves around people stems from slight regional discrepancies in anatomy and leg length. Others have proposed that the Western puma is comparatively more accustomed to hunting large animals and thus sees Homo sapiens as acceptable pickings.
Yet scientists point out that DNA analysis has revealed very little genetic difference between the Eastern and Western panther populations, which means there is no reason to believe the Florida panther is a congenital puddy tat. Certainly the animals can be ruthless with one another. Among panthers living in prime areas away from roads, said Dr. Onorato, “the No. 1 cause of death is intraspecific aggression” — one panther killing another. Some authorities suspect it is only a matter of time and sustained human encroachment before a Florida panther pounces on a Florida land speculator.
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First 2010 Florida Panther Death Confirmed
January 19, 2010
FORT MYERS - Wildlife officials say the first Florida panther death in 2010 has been confirmed.
The panther was found dead Monday night in Lee County.
Officials say the panther had puncture wounds on its legs and had hair embedded in the claws of the rear legs.
A total of 24 panther deaths were documented in 2009. Officials say Florida has experienced a significant increase in panther numbers over the past two decades. Florida panthers are an endangered species; 100 to 120 remain in the wild.
Private land in southwest Florida to become panther reserve
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the conservation of a 4,000-acre chunk of private land for Florida panther habitat.
The service’s Ken Warren said Jan. 21 the land in Hendry County, east of Fort Myers, will be set aside in perpetuity for wildlife habitat — never to be developed.
It is currently a working cattle farm owned by the family of George Milicevic, who purchased the property in the 1940s.
Warren says the land is in an area that is heavily trafficked by the endangered cat, which is among the most endangered species on the planet. Scientists estimate just about 100 Florida panthers remain in the wild.
Help Save the Florida Panther: Record Year for Florida Panther Deaths
By SOP newswire2
January 24, 2010
UCFP132, a beautiful Florida Panther, was recently killed by a vehicle and then beheaded along a highway -- a gruesome mutilation of one of North America`s most endangered animals.
Deaths of these great cats are far too common. Please help us catch illegal panther killers and save the lives of these highly endangered animals. Please donate today.
This terrible loss underscores the tragedy of the record number of endangered Florida panthers killed last year alone.
Just Monday night, the first panther death of 2010 was confirmed about one mile south of Corkscrew Road in Lee County, Florida -- a two and a half year old male.
These big cats are some of the most endangered animals in the world. Their fight against extinction is only becoming more difficult as they are robbed of places to live and speeding cars turn them into roadkill.
Because of the caring support of people like you, I`m here in Florida leading the efforts of Defenders to save these amazing animals. Working with partners throughout the state, we have a comprehensive plan to save panthers from extinction.
Please make a tax-deductible donation today to help Defenders catch panther killers, set aside vital habitat for panthers and make Florida`s roadways safer for these big cats.
The need for funding to save our Florida panthers is urgent.
A four month-old female kitten was recently found dead alongside a road in Naples, FL. Sadly, there are only about 100 Florida panthers left in the world.
Last year, 24 panthers were killed. A record seventeen were lost to vehicle collisions. One was illegally shot, three died in territory conflicts and two deaths -- including the brutal beheading of panther UCFP132 -- remain under investigation.
Your compassionate donation will help us:
Post rewards to catch the person who recently decapitated a panther that had been killed by a vehicle, help put illegal panther killers behind bars and investigate suspicious deaths of these endangered cats.
Install high-tech wildlife sensors on Heartbreak Highway " a road very deadly to panthers. These sensors can reduce wildlife vehicle collisions;
Save panther habitat on the Caloosahatchee River, so that these rare cats can migrate northward and reclaim some of their historic range;
Fight ill-conceived new road projects in Southern Florida that could increase road deaths and further fragment the habitat these great cats need to survive;
and Develop solutions with responsible landowners to realize a future where panthers once more roam along more of their historic range in the American Southeast.
We can`t catch the panther killer or implement these other life-saving programs without the caring support of people like you. Please make your tax-deductible donation right now.
2010 is already turning into a deadly year for Florida panthers. But with your kind support we can help save the lives of the remaining endangered cats.
Defenders of Wildlife
17% of Florida Panthers Killed Last Year in Car Collisions
by Matthew McDermott
January 24th, 2010
There are only about 100 Florida panthers left in the wild. And last year 17 of them were killed by collisions with cars, Defenders of Wildlife says (hat tip to Mongabay...). The last of those deaths occurred on the 30th of December, when a four-year old female cat was killed in Collier County. 2009's deaths set a new record for panther deaths due to vehicle collision and is a marked increase from 2008 numbers:
In 2008, ten panthers met their doom on the bumper of a speeding car, with the previous record of fifteen cat-car collisions being set in 2007.
Though current panther numbers are significantly higher than they were two decades ago, when the cats' population was down to just 20-30 individuals, Defenders of Wildlife says, "The toll that vehicle collisions are taking on the panther's population is a serious obstacle to recovery, and the road and vehicles themselves are inhibiting the panther's efforts to expand its range."
Here's Where to Start Solving the Problem
As what can be done to minimize panther deaths on Florida's roads, Defenders of Wildlife lists a number on their website, but topping the list is:
•The creation of a regional transportation plan that protects panthers, other wildlife and motorists in southwest Florida counties.
•The protection of habitat and corridors on public and private lands that provide a network of panther range.
•The protection of panthers along more highway segments by incorporating wildlife crossing, fencing and additional speed zones in appropriate locations by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions, southwest Florida transportation departments and area developers.
Other than the ongoing problem of habitat loss--each breeding unit of panthers requires about 200 square miles of habitat, something increasingly hard to find in south Florida--automobile collisions are the greatest cause of panther deaths in Florida by humans, the animals being protected from legal hunting in the state since the late 1950s.
2009:A Tragic Year For Florida Panthers
BY BILL SARGENT • FLORIDA TODAY
January 3, 2010
For the endangered Florida Panther, 2009 will be remembered as a tragic year for road kills that went down to the last day.
A 3- to 4-month old kitten killed on New Year's Eve brings the count to a record 17 imperiled cats struck down by vehicles in South Florida in '09. Four died in December, three of them young kittens.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which studies and monitors the sparse population, the previous one-year high for road kills was 15 in 2007.
"It's an unfortunate milestone," said Gabriella Ferraro, a spokesperson for the FWC at its West Palm Beach office. "All we can hope for is an improvement in 2010 that motorists will take heed of our warnings while they're driving through a panther habitat and to use caution."
The kitten, the second fatality in the last three days of the year, was a 30-pound female found on County Barn Road in Naples. It followed the death last Tuesday of a 4-year-old, 80-pound female that was struck two miles north of Jerome on State Road 29 south of Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) in rural Collier County. SR 29 forms the western boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve, a prime territory for the panthers.
"It was just beyond an area where the roadway is fenced," Ferraro said, describing the area where the adult female was found.
Sections of SR 29 and Alligator Alley feature border fencing and wildlife underpasses in an effort to protect the roaming animals from traffic.
On Dec. 23, a 3-year-old male weighing 148 pounds was struck and killed on Corkscrew Road.
The previous week, the FWC put out a statewide press release warning motorists to slow down in panther speed zones, which are well marked with speed limits of 45 miles per hour at night. Motorists caught violating the speed zones often receive fines exceeding $200 for their first offense and there is a mandatory court appearance for any violation exceeding 29 miles per hour over the posted limit.
Darrell Land, a biologist and leader of the FWC's panther study team, said there is a correlation between the increase in vehicle strikes and the growing number of the protected animals.
From an estimated 30 panthers 20 years ago, the Florida population has grown to about 100 cats in the wild today. The Florida panther, which once roamed statewide, has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967.
"Panther deaths, including those from vehicle strikes, have increased in part because of a rise in its numbers," Land said. "In spite of the modest increase in numbers, every cat remains important to the survival of the species in the wild."
Statistics kept by the FWC show the number of panther deaths by collisions has been increasing since 2000.
Panthers are nocturnal in nature and most are struck crossing roadways at night. Some of the huge adult cats range great distances for their food and territorial demands. Many are equipped with radio collars and microchips and their whereabouts are monitored by FWC biologists. Most of the cats live in South and Southwest Florida.
"One cat may require 30 to 100 square miles, especially the males," said Gary Morse, a spokesman in the FWC's Lakeland office. "Another answer is to increase habitat for these animals. Habitat loss has been a critical factor."
Morse reiterated how a male panther which had been equipped with a radio collar was tracked as far north as Disney World property in Central Florida in the mid 1990s. Sightings have been reported as far north as Volusia County west of Daytona Beach.
Five of the 17 documented road kills occurred near Immokalee in Collier County on the edge of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, another prime panther area. Two were 3- to 4-month old kittens.
One kitten and a 3- to 4-year-old female were killed in almost the identical spot 2 miles east of Immokalee on County Road 846 in a span of three days in October. The second kitten was struck about 20 miles away 12 days later on County Road 833.
A total of 24 wild panthers died in 2009. Three resulted from fights with other panthers and two causes of deaths remain unknown. Two others are under investigation, including the headless remains of an adult found along the Florida Turnpike near the Osceola-Indian River county line in November.
A 19-year-old female, one of the oldest in captivity at White Oak, was killed by euthanasia.
Florida Panther Found Decapitated Near Yeehaw Junction
By Craig Pittman, St. Pete Times staff writer
November 21, 2009
The location was odd enough. An anonymous caller reported seeing a dead Florida panther by the side of the Florida Turnpike near Yeehaw Junction. That's more than 150 miles north of where most panthers live.
When Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffers checked out the tip Thursday afternoon, they discovered something more disturbing.
Someone had cut off the panther's head.
On Friday the state wildlife agency offered a reward of up to $1,000 for information that could lead to the arrest of whomever took the grisly souvenir. Know anything?
Anyone with information about the headless Florida panther found Thursday by the Florida Turnpike should call the state's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922. Callers can remain anonymous. Callers whose information leads to an arrest are eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.
"To just simply whack off a panther's head is against the law," explained agency spokeswoman Joy Hill.
Possession of panther parts — even ones that came from an animal that was already dead — is illegal without a state permit, she said.
The decapitated panther, which was found near the Osceola-Indian River county line, had apparently been dead for a couple of days before it was reported, Hill said. At this point, though, no one can say for sure where the panther was killed or what killed it, much less where its head has gone.
"It appears to have been hit by a car," she said. "It was right there on the turnpike."
So far this year 20 panthers have died, according to Dave Onorato, a scientist with the wildlife commission's panther team. Twelve of the 20 were run over, making cars and trucks the primary predator of what the Chickasaw Indians once called "the cat of god."
Two centuries ago the Florida panther roamed throughout the Southeast. But since at least 1967, when it was included in the nation's first endangered species list, the panther population has been largely confined to the state's swampy southern tip.
About 100 prowl the woods and water there now, hunting for deer and hogs. From time to time, though, one of the wide-ranging males will show up well north of its normal habitat. Four years ago one was run over on Interstate 95 near St. Augustine.
Although it's been Florida's official state animal since 1981 — not to mention a popular license plate icon and the mascot of Miami's pro hockey team — panthers have had it particularly rough lately.
In April, someone shot a female panther in Hendry County near the Big Cypress National Preserve. Despite the offer of a $15,000 reward, federal officials still have made no arrests in that case.
More problematic was the case of a hunter in Georgia who called authorities last fall to report that he'd shot a big cat he thought was threatening him. Genetic tests this summer confirmed that it was a male panther that had roamed so far north it had crossed the state line.
And then there's another panther mystery. Officials still have not revealed the cause of death for one panther found dead last month near the Ave Maria development in Collier County, saying the case is still under investigation.
Scientists recommend improvements after reviewing Panther protection plan for eastern Collier
By ERIC STAATS
October 28, 2009 at 7:39PM
COLLIER COUNTY — A team of scientists is calling for improvements to a plan to protect the endangered Florida panther in eastern Collier County.
In an 80-page report — chock full of number-crunching tables, aerial images and detailed maps — the scientists issue a ground-breaking overview of what could become the plan by which panthers either stay or disappear in the heart of what is left of their habitat.
The report strikes a careful bottom line: A 2008 proposal by a coalition of environmental groups and farmers and ranchers to guide growth across almost 200,000 acres around Immokalee “would represent an enhancement of panther conservation” over existing controls, the report states.
“The conservation value to panthers would increase,” even more if a long list of recommendations by the science review team is added to the plan.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that growth in eastern Collier County has the potential to cut into habitat for the panther, and that “does not aid panther recovery,” the report concludes.
“In an ideal world, obviously, we wouldn’t have any development in panther habitat,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service panther recovery coordinator Chris Belden, a member of the science review team.
The report also recommends that a proposed new Interstate 75 interchange at either Everglades Boulevard or two miles east, between the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Desoto Boulevard, “receive no further consideration” because of its impact to panther habitat.
The interchange is not part of the 2008 plan, which builds on a landmark rural growth plan adopted by Collier County in 2002.
The 2002 plan, which is voluntary, allows landowners across almost 200,000 acres around Immokalee to preserve natural land in return for credits to develop on less sensitive land.
The Florida Panther Protection Plan would award credits for preservation of agricultural land, create two panther travel corridors, cap development at 45,000 acres and require additional mitigation under the federal permitting program for development in panther habitat.
The plan also proposed new fees on mitigation credits and real estate sales in eastern Collier County that would raise an estimated $150 million to buy panther habitat for preservation and to pay for habitat restoration and wildlife crossings.
The number of wild panthers had dwindled to around 30 before scientists released eight female Texas cougars into South Florida to restore the population’s genetic diversity.
Now, scientists estimate between 100 and 120 panthers roam across less than 5 percent of its historic range, mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River.
Scientists say habitat loss continues to threaten the survival of the panther, including in eastern Collier County, where the 2002 plan laid the groundwork for the new town of Ave Maria and Ave Maria University. A second new town, called Big Cypress, and an earthmine also are on the drawing board.
The coalition that hand-picked the six scientists to answer the question of whether the plan would benefit the Florida panther issued an upbeat assessment of the science review.
“The PRT (Panther Review Team) unequivocally and unanimously responded in the affirmative,” the statement says.
Other members of the review team besides Belden were senior scientist Randy Kautz and vice president Tom Logan, with consultants Breedlove, Dennis and Associates in Tallahassee; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land; Conservancy of Southwest Florida biologist David Shindle; and University of Central Florida research associate Daniel Smith.
As for the recommendations to improve the plan, the coalition will carefully consider whether they are feasible in light of other issues the review team did not tackle, including private property rights and economic viability, the statement says.
The Florida Panther Protection Plan coalition includes Audubon of Florida, Collier County Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Federation and landowners Alico Land Development Corp., Barron Collier Partnership, Collier Enterprises, Consolidated Citrus LP, English Brothers, Half Circle L Ranch Partnership, Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. and Sunniland Family Limited Partnership.
The science review team’s recommendations would bring the plan “very close” to a proposal put forth by the Conservancy, which has been critical of the coalition’s plan, Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said.
“The concern I have going forward is there not be an effort to cherry pick the recommendations but that they go forward as a bloc,” McElwaine said.
The federal permitting mechanism that would put the plan into action will require further review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including public input.
Collier County also will have to adopt changes to its 2002 plan, which will require a sign-off from the state Department of Community Affairs.
Highlights of findings and recommendations of a panel of scientists reviewing a plan for Florida panther protection across parts of 200,000 acres around Immokalee:
Preserve an additional 38,746 acres, resulting in the preservation of 140,922 acres.
Almost 9,000 acres recommended for additional preservation are designated as potential future development on a 2050 Concept Plan map drawn up by landowners.
Land remaining for development would be sufficient to accommodate a proposed 45,000-acre development cap and would impact 2,084 acres of primary panther habitat.
Primary habitat shouldn’t be developed until less crucial panther habitat is converted to urban uses.
New roads should not cut through preserve areas.
Prohibit mining in additional preserve areas and count mines toward the acreage cap on development.
Panther travel corridors should be widened and reconfigured with broader starting and ending points.
Authorities investigating suspicious panther death; three others hit by vehicles
By ERIC STAATS
Posted November 2, 2009 at 3:36PM
NAPLES — Authorities are investigating the death of a Florida panther that had been kept secret until Monday.
The death of uncollared Florida panther No. 128, UCFP128 for short, was listed in an e-mail from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land along with three panthers struck and killed by vehicles in the past two weeks.
Land’s e-mail includes no details about the panther death under investigation except to list it between two other panther deaths Oct. 7 and Oct. 19.
On Oct. 21, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with help from the Conservation Commission and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, searched a house at 2880 20th Avenue S.E. in Golden Gate Estates in connection with a wildlife violation investigation, agents said.
They refused again Monday to say whether the search was panther-related.
“I can’t confirm what we’re looking at out there,” Conservation Commission Capt. Jayson Horadam.
“It’s a large investigation, and it’s going to take some time.”
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman was similarly tight-lipped Monday.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that UCFP128 is/was in any way related to the search of a home on Oct. 21 in Golden Gate Estates,” agency spokesman Ken Warren wrote in an e-mail.
Agents arrived at the house, which property records list as being owned by Terry L. Sirosky, at about 7:30 a.m. and spent the day there.
The search extended to a dark blue Chevrolet Silverado with Wakulla County license plates in the middle of 18th Avenue S.E., one block away.
The truck later was driven to the house, where it was still parked the next morning.
Earlier in the day, K-9 units were brought in to aid in the search, which extended to the home’s wooded back yard.
Land, the Conservation Commission biologist, said the agency delayed an announcement of the three panthers killed by vehicles because of uncertainty about how to number the deaths given that the death of No. 128 had not been made public.
The Conservation Commission has worked out a system to avoid delaying announcements of panther deaths in the future, Land said.
In the first of those three deaths, a 3- to 4-month-old male kitten, weighing 21 pounds, was killed along Immokalee Road, about two miles east of Immokalee, on Oct. 19.
Two days later, a 3- to 4-year-old female panther, thought to be the kitten’s mother, was killed near the same spot, according to Land’s e-mail Monday.
Then, on Sunday, a 3- to 4-month-old female kitten weighing 17 pounds was struck and killed by a vehicle at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Hendry County.
In light of the previous two deaths east of Immokalee, the kitten was moved away from the road, and Conservation Commission officers stayed on the scene for several hours after dark to slow down traffic in the area, Land reported.
The mother panther sat next to the dead kitten for about 30 minutes before moving away, officers said.
The kitten was removed from the scene Monday morning, Land said.
Conservation Commission officers were planning to be in the area again overnight Monday to try to avert a repeat of the deaths east of Immokalee.
“That’s what we’re hoping,” Land said.
So far this year, 12 panthers have been struck and killed by vehicles among a total of 18 deaths.
They include three panthers killed by other panthers, a panther found shot in April in Hendry County and two other panther deaths in which the cause is listed as unknown.
A $15,000 reward has been issued for information related to the shooting of the panther in Hendry County.
Biologists have been unable to determine a cause of death for a 2-year-old male panther found dead in an orange grove east of Ave Maria in September.
The same is true for a 3- to 4-year-old female panther found dead in the Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve in October.
Scientists estimate there are 120 panthers left in the wild.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.
Two Recent Panther Deaths Confound Biologists
By ERIC STAATS
Published Monday, October 19, 2009
COLLIER COUNTY — A case of a Florida panther found dead in an orange grove east of Ave Maria has been turned over to federal investigators.
The cause of death is unknown, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Dave Onorato said Monday.
Onorato said he could not comment further because of the federal investigation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not be reached for comment late Monday afternoon.
The death of the endangered wildcat is the second in the past month that has confounded panther biologists and follows on the discovery in April of a panther shot and killed in Hendry County.
A $15,000 reward has been offered for information about that shooting, which also is under investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
An estimated 100 to 120 panthers are left in the wild, an increase from as few as 30 in the 1980s, but habitat loss remains a barrier to their recovery, scientists say.
So far this year, 14 panthers have been killed, three of them by other panthers. Nine have been struck and killed by vehicles.
The panther found in the orange grove Sept. 15 was an uncollared 2-year-old male, according to the monthly newsletter of the Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
“There seems to be a lot of mystery about it,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said Monday.
In another incident earlier this month, a panther was found floating dead in the Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve, less than a half mile south of U.S. 41 East.
A state veterinarian concluded the cause of that panther’s death was blunt force trauma to the abdomen but it could not be attributed to a vehicle strike, Onorato said.
The carcass did not have the telltale signs of a vehicle strike, including fur torn off or a cracked skull or broken spine from a collision, he said.
Onorato theorized that the injury could have been sustained when the panther jumped from a tree or was taking down prey.
A canoe guide for the Ivey House in Everglades City discovered the panther Oct. 9 floating in about 17 inches of water, according to a National Park Service report.
The panther was an uncollared female, estimated at between 3 and 4 years old, and had been dead for about two days, according to the report.
Investigators found no signs of alligators or another panther, no sign of a struggle in surrounding vegetation and no clear path from the carcass to uplands, the report states.
Law enforcement officers found a possible blood spot on the westbound lanes of U.S. 41 and took samples for analysis, the report states.
The discovery of the panther in the river is fueling calls for new measures to protect Florida panthers along U.S. 41 at Turner River.
Since 1984, eight Florida panthers have been struck by vehicles along the same stretch of U.S. 41 near Turner River, six of them since 2004.
A proposal for a wildlife crossing has met with opposition from preserve users upset about fencing limiting their access and from an Indian tribe with a sacred cultural site nearby.
Environmental groups are pushing for more immediate steps, including a lower daytime speed limit, stepped up enforcement and research into roadside systems to alert drivers to wildlife.
“We need something there right now,” said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/
Crestview Florida Police Officer Reports Panther Sighting
October 16, 2009 2:24 PM
Brian Hughes | Crestview News Bulletin
A Crestview Police officer reported seeing a Florida panther at Davidson Middle School Thursday night.
Ironically, the reported sighting occurred not too long after a football game at the school where the Davidson players emerged with a 26-0 win over a rival team from Meigs Middle School.
Davidson Middle School’s mascot is the Florida panther.
“He just stopped by to visit his brothers,” Crestview Police Department shift commander Lt. Andrew Schneider said jokingly.
Crestview Police Officer Sgt. Brian Muhlbach reported spotting the animal about10:15 p.m. Thursday, about an hour and a half after the football the game.
Muhlbach was not on duty Friday afternoon and could not be reached. According to a call report, he told dispatchers Thursday night he saw a panther that appeared to be between “60-70 pounds.”
He kept the animal in sight while waiting for animal control, the dipatch report states.
“Unit three, advise to see if they have a tranquilizer gun available,” he was stated as saying.
The dispatcher advised Muhlback panthers “are an endangered species. Only engage as a last resort.”
Shortly afterwards, Muhlbach told dispatchers he had lost sight of the animal.
The appearance of a Florida panther this far north in the state is a rare occurrence, said Susan Carroll-Douglas, wildlife assistant biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in Panama City.
“They can make it that far north, but generally speaking they are from south Florida,” Carroll-Douglas said. “If there is a panther in the Crestview area, it would be an abnormality.”
She said that residents do not need to be overly worried if indeed a panther is in the area.
“Panthers are not any more aggressive toward people than other predators,” Carroll-Douglas said. “We would advise anyone to take caution with small pets, but we have not had any more conflicts with panthers than we do with other species we generally have in the Panhandle.”
Carroll-Douglas asked residents to document any evidence of a panther in the area.
“If anybody gets any tracks or a photograph, we would love to take a look at them,” she said.
Anyone with a sighting can call Call the commission at (850) 265-3676.
Officials Say Slain Panther's Ga. Trip A Rarity
By DAVE NICHOLSON
Published: September 6, 2009
TAMPA - A DNA test recently confirmed that a big cat killed in November in western Georgia was a Florida panther, but biologists say it doesn't mean the endangered animals are expanding their range.
Biologists say the estimated 100 to 120 panthers live almost exclusively in southern Florida and there's no evidence they are establishing themselves that far north.
But they sometimes show up in unexpected places, including near Disney World and Daytona. One was killed more than six years ago when it tried to dart across Interstate 4 near a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Seffner.
Male panthers are known to roam great distances for mates.
The panther killed Nov. 16 near LaGrange, about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, was likely searching for females, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Gary Morse said.
"As much as they travel, it shouldn't surprise anyone" that he headed north and kept going, Morse said.
Panthers largely stay in their domain down south, and even males rarely cross Interstate 4, Morse said.
The 140-pound male killed in Georgia was an exception. A deer hunter shot the wayward panther with a muzzleloader when the cat stopped at his tree stand and looked up at him.
"He felt threatened and he shot it," said Robin Hill, a spokeswoman for the Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division.
The hunter contacted authorities immediately to report what he had done, and no charges have been filed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office of law enforcement is investigating because the Florida panther is a federally protected endangered species.
The cat was so healthy that biologists wondered whether it was a captive that escaped or had been set free, but a DNA test showed he had been fathered by a wild Florida panther.
Biologists say panthers, a cousin of the cougar and mountain lion, once ranged as far as Texas and Tennessee. Hill said her agency receives many reports of panther sightings, but this is the first confirmed presence in the state in years. Georgia biologists don't view this as a sign that panthers are established in the state, she said.
Morse agrees. Younger males often are chased out of a territory by a dominant male that doesn't want competition for females.
The displaced males will walk miles in search of females, eventually turning around when they find none, Morse said.
The panther that met his demise in Georgia was 500 to 600 miles north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for the animals near Naples.
Morse likened the male panthers' urge to roam to human counterparts who look for love in nightclubs.
"They're looking for bars with female panthers in them," he said.
Make (Lots Of) Room For Panthers
Palm Beach Post, October 4, 2009
By the Post Editorial Board
Do roughly 100 animals deserve 3 million acres of Florida? If the animals are endangered, the answer may have to be yes. At the very least, we're glad that someone is asking.
Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate 3 million acres in western Palm Beach and Broward and eastern Collier counties as protected Florida panther habitat. Once, thousands of tawny-colored panthers roamed not just the state but the Southeastern U.S. There remain 100 to 120, living south of the Caloosahatchee River that flows from Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers. That population is too small for genetic diversity.
Admittedly, the request is staggering. The area would be larger than Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties combined, with almost enough left over for another Martin and St. Lucie. Consider, though, that the federal government created the first panther preservation plan nearly 20 years ago and has updated it three times, yet the numbers haven't improved enough. The panthers' biggest threat is habitat loss from development. That development also brings roads, on which cars kill the animals.
According to the petition, the goal over the next 12 years should be to establish three populations of roughly 240 panthers each. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to rule by mid-December. The Endangered Species Act saved the bald eagle, the national bird. You can see bald eagles in Florida. The Endangered Species Act also saved the American alligator, to the point where Florida now can hold a gator hunting season. So the idea of saving the Florida panther really should not seem far-fetched - just overdue.
Paper Backs Panther Protection Proposal
Arguing that "the idea of saving the Florida panther really should not seem far-fetched -- just overdue," the Palm Beach Post endorsed the Center for Biological Diversity's scientific petition to establish a 3-million-acre reserve for the endangered species. "The request is staggering," the paper said, but if the Endangered Species Act saved the bald eagle and American alligator, it can save the Florida panther too -- if we use its powerful habitat protection tools.
Down to about 100 animals in a single population and suffering from lack of genetic diversity, the Florida panther needs room to grow to three large populations. The Center's petition filed in September is designed to give it the room to do so.
Students Getting Their Feet Wet With LIFE Program
Posted December 2, 2009 at 4:14 p.m.
Talk about getting your feet wet. Hundreds of Collier County middle school students got the chance to experience the outdoors up close and personal, thanks to a state environmental program.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Learning in Florida’s Environment program partnered with Collier County public schools, the Florida Panther Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, South Florida Water Management District, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge to expose more Florida students to outdoor learning experiences on public lands.
As part of the 14th LIFE program in Florida, nearly 500 middle school students from Immokalee, Manatee and Golden Gate middle schools recently learned science concepts, methods and skills through hands-on labs at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and two other sites in Collier County in October and November.
“This unique learning experience engages students in their own scientific investigations and gives them an opportunity to meet real scientists who protect, study and manage refuges and wildlife management areas,” said Greg Ira, director of DEP’s Environmental Education. “During the labs, students ... explore and measure non-living components of the environment such as temperature, humidity, light intensity and soil moisture, and learn about the threats, biology and protection of the endangered Florida panther.”
As part of the science lessons, students used Global Positioning Systems to participate in a scavenger hunt where they learned more about the Florida panther in its natural habitat. One location in the activity led students to a pen that is sometimes used to introduce panthers to the area before they are eventually released.
“Florida Panther Refuge is pleased to host a LIFE program for Collier County students who might not otherwise visit panther habitat,” said Ben Nottingham, acting project leader of the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast Refuge Complex, Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Another aspect of the labs required the students from each middle school to explore a service learning topic that is related to a local environmental issue impacting their school. Golden Gate Middle School students studied water quality in local canals, Manatee Middle School students explored local invasive and exotic species and Immokalee Middle School students examined common non-point sources of pollution such as oil from old cars and agricultural chemicals.
Since 2004, more than 6,300 future scientists and environmental stewards have participated in the LIFE program. The LIFE initiative established a systematic and statewide network of field-based, environmental-science programs that brings students out to public lands to learn science.
The goals of the LIFE program are increased student achievement, teacher professional development in science, increased participation of underserved and under-represented populations and increased stewardship of public lands. LIFE program activities are consistent with the new Governor’s Serve to Preserve: Green Schools awards program and the field experiences that students participate in are examples of using the natural environment to green the curriculum.
For more information about DEP’s LIFE and other Office of Environmental Education programs, visit.dep.state.fl.us/secretary/ed. For more information on sponsoring a LIFE site or volunteering for the LIFE program, contact Greg Ira at (850) 245-2132.
Endangered Panther Killed By Hit And Run Driver
NAPLES — A Florida panther was struck and killed by a vehicle over the Labor Day 2009 weekend on Interstate 75, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported.
The 2-year-old female panther was hit about three miles east of the toll booth in Collier County at around 3 a.m. Sunday, the report said.
An officer with the Florida Highway Patrol found the panther during routine patrols; the motorist that struck the endangered cat did not stop or report the collision.
The uncollared panther is the ninth panther to have died in collisions with vehicles this year; four other panthers have died of other causes, according to state figures.
The carcass will be sent to Gainesville for a necropsy, and the remains will be kept at the Florida Museum of Natural History, according to the Conservation Commission.
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