The news from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) last summer was quite shocking considering the amount of time and resources in preserving the Florida panther population and habitat over the past 47 years. The Florida Panther was the first cat listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966; the predecessor to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and remains listed as endangered. The IUCN lists the Florida panther as CRITICALLY ENDANGERED and estimates the total population of Florida Panthers is only 30 to 50 mature individuals (which is below far below population reported of 100-180). WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society published two in-depth articles on the Florida Panther in 2010 (See Journal of the WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society~The Degradation of Wildcat Populations & Habitats~Winter 2010 ~ Volume IV) and questioned the methodology used to calculate the panthers population. Bear in mind these population studies and the Florida panthers listing as Endangered under the ESA, are tied to commercial and residential developers receiving permits to construct retail shopping, corporate industrial parks, entertainment venues and housing in panther territory.
FWC in a draft policy memo stated, “Panther populations are straining and currently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationalists in the region.” They further stated that it is becoming more challenging to manage one small population of panthers and it is putting a burden on the agency’s human and financial resources. FWC recommends simply “maintaining” and “managing” the population that exists and running interference between human and panther conflicts. Apparently, panthers are being viewed not so much as a beloved state cat but an inconvenience to the growth of human population and commercial activities.
FWC stated, “Given the current federal recovery plan calls for establishing breeding populations of panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River, any efforts to achieve this outcome beyond natural range expansion is the responsibility of the USFWS. FWC will not provide direct staff and funding to support such efforts until issues with private lands, regulatory burdens, and human acceptance have been resolved. Successful expansion of breeding panther populations in Florida will require that FWC has meaningful and practical management flexibility along with clear options on federal regulatory issues north of the Caloosahatchee.” (emphasis added).
Much of the controversy stemmed from whether FWC was attempting to have the Florida panther delisted under the ESA. (Which of course means no permits needed for commercial development.) Two public hearings were held last summer with a revised memo approved by the FWC. Jon Ulman, speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, stated “It’s not about whether panther’s are eating my cattle. It’s about whether panther habitat is going to be replaced with strip malls and retirement golf communities, by Jiffy Lubes and Walmarts.”