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Is the 'Endangered' Florida Panther a Myth?

May 30, 2015 - 11:15pm

You wouldn't know it by the noise over Amendment 1 this week. But there are other issues besides land for water storage roiling up Floridians who live in and around the Everglades. 

Besides even Burmese pythons.

Believe it or not, the debate of the day in Glades County and neighborhoods around the Big Cypress National Preserve involves the iconic Florida panther -- the official state animal and star of Florida's fifth most popular license plate.

Glades, Hendry and Collier counties are ground zero for panther habitat.

And Glades County is exactly where a public rumble Tuesday night rekindled an old debate over whether Florida panthers are really Florida panthers at all, and whether whatever they are -- let's call them pumas -- they have rebounded to a plentiful population that is physically, behaviorally and genetically different than the cat that roamed Florida long ago. 

It was all part of the Glades County Commission meeting, when a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed up to argue for more panther corridor. It turned into a federal-government-versus-fifth-generation-Florida-outdoorsmen showdown.

The fifth generation Florida outdoorsmen happen to be the county commissioners.

The USFWS  wants a parcel called the BOMA property, claims it's vital for panther perpetuation north across the Caloosahatchee River. Right now it belongs to the South Florida Water Management District. The district has declared the parcel surplus and it's soon going up for sale.

But, wait a minute, said commissioners -- all avid outdoorsman, hunters, landowners or livestock owners.  Let's think the USFWS idea through. These were their concerns:

  • Panthers have an established corridor in a conservation easement directly to the west of the BOMA property. The animals have been observed crossing the Caloosahatchee River, using that corridor/conservation easement already in place. The BOMA land is wedged between the Caloosahatchee and State Road 80. FDOT, Lee County and USFWS have proposed an adjacent underpass.
  • The USFWS corridor would direct panthers into already existing residential areas. The panthers would be funneled into the area of the river that houses the Ortona Locks -- the same flood control device responsible for annual releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
  • Florida is already 33 percent government-owned, and with Amendment 1, that number will increase. 
  • The University of Florida/IFAS is interested in leasing some of the property to build a citrus greening research facility, a specific enterprise dedicated to saving Florida's signature crop.

But the elephant in the room -- perhaps the thing at the heart of commissioners' concerns -- is whether there is such a thing as a Florida panther anymore.

In the purest sense, probably not.

"One of the last two known Florida panthers died in 2011, struck by a car, as is the fate of most panthers these days," Michael Elfenbein, 38, of Port Charlotte, something of an authority on the animals, said in an email after the meeting. "The second known Florida panther, FP113, was 11 years old when she was last photographed in 2013. Her existence today is not likely."

Elfenbein,  a Florida native and outdoorsman, also attended the Glades County Commission meeting.

"Puma or Puma Concolor is the name given to all cougars, panthers, mountain lions, catamounts, painters, and so forth in North America," he explained. 
"The issue is simply that they are no longer a Florida panther. First, scientists have disproved the existence of the separate subspecies, making all cougars in North America one and the same." 

Glades County Commission Chair Donna Storter Long, another lifelong Florida resident, is adamant. "Florida panthers should be removed from the endangered list because there is no Florida panther."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission admits panthers barely escaped extinction, when in the mid-1980s there might only have been 30 left. What the government did next to help push the panther population back up to today's situation is either lauded as a huge success or decried as a monumental mistake.

In 1995, eight pumas from Texas were released and bred to give genetic variation to the small, inbred panther population that was left in southern Florida.

Said Long, "Lists of animal species that are diminishing, endangered and threatened by possible extinction should not include panthers in Florida because these animals are no longer 'Florida panthers;' factually and publicly known they are progeny of animals imported from another state where they are not even close to being endangered." 

The government entirely disagrees with the Glades commission chair. A statement from USFWC reads, "Florida panthers are still Florida panthers. Genetic restoration has mimicked what used to occur naturally before the loss of extensive amounts of habitat. You could make the case that the genetic restoration program actually has resulted in Florida panthers that are more similar to those that historically inhabited the southeast U.S. prior to isolation in Florida."

Elfenbein said  the government only "officially" recognizes the existence of panthers south of the Caloosahatchee River, despite constant and credible confirmed sightings across all of Florida and the Southeastern United States. Consequently, the cats are afforded protections that aren't needed,  making for destructive consequences. 

"The consequences of this program are dire, real and are occurring daily as the program continues to lack management," Elfenbein said. "Native wildlife populations and biological diversity are declining, livestock depredations are out of control, small pets are being consumed, and some neighborhood residents are held hostage by the fear of attack or injury. 

"The same government agencies ... that created this program stated in 2006 that the primary panther zone could not sustain more than 94 individuals, and we now have as many as 272, according to government models."

Incidentally, the state Panther Program Appropriations was $1.6 million in the last budget, according to the latest annual report from the state on panther management. But that could grow. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed in the 2015-2016 budget $150 million toward land acquisition and management that would protect land for the Florida panther.

Ultimately, the decision of who gets the BOMA property belongs to the seller, SFWMD. But on Tuesday night, the Glades Board of County Commissioners moved to oppose the corridor and support the  UF/IFAS lease.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith 


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