Every five years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews the status of federally listed endangered species. This year, the Florida Panther is up for review to public comments, providing ranchers in South Florida with an opportunity to push to have the animal removed from the list. The Florida Panther has flirted with extinction for decades. With just 20 to 30 individuals left in the wild in the 1980s, this low number led to a breeding program in the 1990s that introduced eight female Texas cougars in the Florida Panther’s breeding range, which has been isolated to South Florida. Historically, Florida Panthers were found as far north as Tennessee and as far West as Louisiana and Arkansas.
Earlier this year, Florida Panthers were confirmed north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in decades, marking a milestone in Panther recovery efforts. However, this sign of recovery may also be used to argue for stripping endangered species protections from Florida Panthers. Their voracious development in South Florida and predatory nature has intensified conflicts between the animal and ranchers.
The Miami Herald reported in 2015, “Ranchers and hunters complain that panthers also are preying on more livestock and deer, a sign they are outgrowing their territory.” At the time, Gov. Rick Scott appointee Florida Wildlife Commissioner Liesa Priddy, a rancher who has lost cattle from Florida Panther attacks, was pushing for Florida Panther policy to be amended. The population was estimated to be anywhere from 100 individuals to over 200, but a federal recovery plan from 2008 called for at least two distinct populations north of the Caloosahatchee River before they are to be removed from the endangered species list. The Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge in North Florida was cited as an ideal location for one of these populations, but those efforts have been obstructed. Priddy called the recovery plan “aspirational rather than practical.” Florida Wildlife Commissioner Nick Wiley, a property developer, advocated in 2015 that the Florida Panther be removed from the endangered species so that the State of Florida could independently manage its protection. Priddy recently told Naple News she welcomed the new review but wouldn’t outright support removing the protections. She said, “I think there’s more evidence than there ever was before,” while discussing facts qualifying the species for removal from the list.
Male Florida Panthers generally require a range of 200 square miles, but the highly fragmented habitats of Florida provide little room for the population to grow without wildlife corridors being built. On average, dozens of Florida Panthers are killed by vehicles in South Florida every year. Fourty-two Panthers were killed in 2016, tying the record set in 2015. These deaths outnumber the recorded births in the same years, with 14 in 2016 and 15 in 2015.
The threats facing Florida Panthers demonstrate the necessity for endangered species protections and greater efforts to expand the Florida Panther’s range north. In order for the species to recover, its population needs genetic diversity. Many landowners north of the Caloosahatchee River don’t want Florida Panthers introduced in the region, and land development north of the river is increasing. Hunters have also complained that there aren’t enough deer to hunt in the Big Cypress Preserve and South Florida due to Florida Panther populations.
The Florida Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife complained to the Miami Herald in 2015 that the rancher driven plan “attempts to redefine recovery in terms of social tolerance rather than biology.” Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper added, “You almost read this as they’re moving toward managing the panther as a nuisance species rather than an endangered species.”