A controversial proposal to scale back conservation plans for the endangered Florida panther was presented to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last Tuesday by Commissioner Liesa Priddy, and the Commission's Executive Director Nick Wiley.
The policy proposal suggested that Florida's efforts in recovering the panther population needed to shift from expanding the population to maintaining one that could "co-exist" in fast-growing Southwest Florida.
The current federal recovery plan drafted in 2008 calls for three distinct populations of 240 panthers, including two north of the Caloosahatchee River, before the animal can be removed from the endangered species list.*
Priddy and Wiley called that plan "aspirational rather than practical" and said the state should stop supporting efforts to expand the panther north until federal officials figure out the locations of future populations and overcome opposition from local landowners.
According to Wiley, the "intensive care" provided by the Endangered Species Act is no longer necessary.
"It's time to take a fresh look at where panthers fit in," said Wiley. "If we can get to a point where there's less federal regulation and allow the state of Florida to have more control over panther management, then we'd like to get to that point."
But many of Florida's conservationists disagree.
According to Laurie MacDonald, a Florida program director for Defenders of Wildlife, the plan "attempts to redefine recovery in terms of social tolerance rather than biology." The panther population "has not reached interim goals much less recovery goals."
"For the state government to openly say we will not support the federal government in implementing the recovery ... of a species is almost unprecedented," said Jennifer Hecker, a policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "They are the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That should be their foremost goal."
Unfortunately, recent actions - steep budget cuts in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a Tuesday vote to allow hunting of black bears just coming off the threatened species list and the Legislature's diversion of tens of millions in voter-approved money for conserving wild lands protecting Florida's wildlife - appear on signal that protecting the environment is not on the agenda of Florida's policy makers.
Due to opposition from some of the Commissioners, Wiley agreed to rework his proposal for future consideration by the Commission.
* There is an estimated 100 to 135 panthers in Florida.