An environmental group announced Tuesday that it will repay the losses of ranchers whose calves are eaten by Florida panthers. The price: $500 per cow.
But ranchers are dubious about the value of the compensation program.
"It's kind of a warm and fuzzy thing, but it's really not going to make any difference," said Liesa Priddy, who, with her husband, Russell, runs the Sunniland Ranch.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is offering the payments because so many ranchers have complained about losing cattle to the state animal — although no one knows for sure how many the panthers have eaten.
"Depending on who you talk to, it's either 1,000 or five," said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy.
That's why the environmental group is restricting payments to those losses that have occurred since October 2010 and have been verified by panther experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"We just want to make sure I don't have to mortgage the nature center to pay for this," McElwaine joked.
However, Priddy said that the restrictions the Conservancy has put on its payment program means that few ranchers will qualify.
"If they really wanted to be helpful," she said, "they would've gotten a list of those people from the wildlife commission and just written those people a check."
Normally, panthers eat deer and hogs, with the occasional raccoon or opossum. But as people have crowded into what was once panther habitat and the panther population grew from about 30 to 100 or more, biologists have discovered panthers eating domestic cats and goats.
Ranchers long suspected that the state animal was also attacking their cattle, but they had no proof — until last fall when someone wearing night-vision goggles witnessed a panther kill a calf on the Priddy family's 9,000-acre ranch in Collier County.
When a big predator like a panther starts killing livestock "people start to get unhappy and people start to get scared," McElwaine said, noting that three panthers died under mysterious circumstances in February and March. At least one of them was shot. Those cases are all under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We'd like to defuse some of the tension," McElwaine said.
In addition to the cattle payments, for the people who have lost goats and other small livestock the Conservancy is offering to help pay for fences and cages to keep them locked up safely at night.
By announcing its own program, the Conservancy has gotten a jump on the federal government, which was negotiating with South Florida landowners about creating a similar program.
"Compensation programs have been helpful in some depredation cases out west," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren.
"We appreciate the pilot effort the Conservancy is launching and will continue to evaluate the possibility of developing and implementing our own in cooperation with the state and other partners."
Priddy said she and other ranchers are also working with panther experts on a project to implant each new calf with a global positioning tag so that if the calves stop moving, "they can find them and see what killed them."
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.