Florida hunters, ranchers challenge state's method of counting panthers as more wildlife killed

Posted at 5:52 AM, Oct 31, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-31 10:54:46-04

A growing movement among cattle ranchers and hunters is challenging the way Florida counts panthers, the state’s official mammal and one of its most iconic endangered species.

More than 50 hunters and ranchers from all over South Florida flocked this week to a rare public meeting in Naples of the federal and state team guiding Florida panther recovery efforts. The hunters and ranchers pushed back against recovery goals they say are causing panthers to run amok.

They told stories about fearless panthers getting too close for comfort. They said a burgeoning panther population is causing native wildlife declines. They worried that panthers killing calves will ruin their livelihoods.

“I just wonder if we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” said Collier County ranch owner Liesa Priddy, who Gov. Scott appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

She questioned as unwise the goal of creating two distinct populations of 240 panthers each, which would move them from the endangered status to threatened. Creating three distinct populations would take the panthers off the endangered list altogether.

“Not every single species can be recovered,” she said. “I think that’s something we need to hold out there and consider.”

Collier County is ground zero for panther recovery because it covers the best of what’s left of their habitat on public lands, like the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand, and on private ranches around Immokalee.

In the mid-1980s, Florida panther trackers counted as few as 30 left in the wild. A controversial plan to introduce eight female Texas cougars into the South Florida population is credited with restoring panther’s genetic diversity and boosting the population.

A 2013 count put the minimum population at 104 panthers, and scientists say a steady increase has leveled off, indicating that panthers may have no more room to grow. Male panthers have ventured north of the Caloosahatchee River, but there is no proof that females are there.

Panther tracker Roy McBride, a Texas-based predator control expert who does Florida’s annual counts, made the case for basing population estimates on facts.

McBride uses hounds and his team’s own expertise to find panther signs — scat, urine markers, tracks, panther prey kills. He then is careful to distinguish between males and females and time and distance between signs to avoid double-counting.

“If we’re going to count panthers, let’s at least use verifiable evidence or nobody’s going to believe us,” he said.

For years, Florida reported only a minimum population size, but amid questions about the real size of the population, the Conservation Commission reported its first population range estimate in 2011. Scientists estimated the population at between 100 and 160 panthers. The top number was increased to 180 earlier this year.

The range estimate uses minimum count data to figure out many panthers roam per square mile in areas where they are most plentiful and then multiplies that figure over the panther’s entire reproductive range.

But minimum counts and population range estimates are not the same as statistically valid population size estimates that can hold up to scientific scrutiny. Scientists are still looking for ways to do that.

“Not one of them has popped up and said, ‘Hey, this is the one you want to use,’” said Darrell Land, Florida’s panther recovery team leader based in Naples.

One count method from a 2012 study suggests the Florida panther population grew to 272, but the margin of error in the count methodology is so large and the calculation method is considered biased toward panthers around public lands.

Most hunters and ranchers attending this week’s meeting weren’t buying any of the numbers being tossed around.

“Perhaps these animals aren’t reading our books,“ said Mike Elfenbein, 37, of Port Charlotte, a Florida native and outdoorsman who says he’s been stalked by a panther four times.

Increasing conflicts between panthers and people is “on the radar” of state and federal wildlife agencies, said Larry Williams, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They’re showing up on porches, they’re showing up on ranches and we need to do something differently,“ Williams told the at-times belligerent crowd at the extension office.

He hinted at a loosening of endangered species rules that prohibit harrassing and hazing and suggested it might be time to relax the measures used to determine whether the panther should be downlisted to threatened and eventually taken off the endangered list.

Florida Wildlife Federation field represenative Nancy Payton said resolving the issues surrounding a growing panther population is key to the panthers’ future, and that includes converting hunters and ranchers into “missionaries” for panther conservation rather than critics.

“They’re not there yet,” she said.