VENUS — In a move that has never been tried before by the federal government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials want to pay big landowners to maintain their property as good panther habitat.
They unveiled a possible pilot program Thursday, one that would spend $500,000 per year to pay landowners to preserve about 26,000 acres for 10 years — roughly 10 percent of all the South Florida land that might eventually be covered, according to wildlife service officials.
The program — dubbed Payment for Ecosystem Services — has been tried in some states but never by the federal government, and never involving a wide-ranging predator like the panther, said Kevin Godsea of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
But if the program works, it could be extended into other parts of the state where biologists are hoping panthers will one day make a home.
The proposal came out at a forum at Central Florida's Archbold Biological Station, where a federally sponsored group that for months has been holding closed-door meetings on the future of panthers finally opened up about what's being discussed.
The Panther Recovery Implementation Team — five state and federal officials, one environmental activist from Defenders of Wildlife and a representative of a major landowner, the Barron Collier Co. — began meeting last fall. The goal: to figure out what needs to be done to save panthers, the official state animal.
The forum drew about 100 ranchers, hunters and environmental activists, all curious about what's being proposed for a creature that has been on the federal endangered species list since the list was created in 1967.
The only concrete proposal presented at the forum was the payment program. Originally, officials had planned to set up a program to reimburse ranchers for calves killed by panthers. Wildlife agency officials had set up a $10,000 fund last year to pay for those losses, but ranchers told them that wouldn't work.
When a panther kills, it will eat for a while but then conceal the carcass in the woods for later. That makes it impossible to verify losses and make a claim for every calf lost, said state wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, a rancher.
So instead, Godsea said, the team figured the federal government could pay the landowners to maintain the habitat that already exists on their land.
In exchange for $22.30 an acre per year, the landowner would have to follow certain practices involving controlled burns and other land-management techniques, and allow federal officials to inspect the property once a year, he said.
Federal officials are hoping the proposal will create allies for the panther among the ranchers, who regard the predator as a serious drain on their finances.
"We don't like the Florida panther, and we don't like the Florida panther preservation program," rancher Jack Johnson said during the forum.
He and other ranchers were skeptical of the proposal.
"We don't want to get paid for what we're already doing," rancher Donnie Crawford said. "We want you to pay for what your panther is doing."
But Priddy encouraged the other ranchers to give the idea a chance: "This isn't perfect, but it puts us further ahead than we are now."
Panthers, which once roamed the entire Southeast, are now largely confined to the swamps, pastures and forests of Florida's southern tip. The population had dwindled to about 30 a few decades ago, many with genetic defects from inbreeding. Since state biologists brought in eight female Texas cougars in 1995 to freshen up the genetics, the Florida panther population has rebounded until about 100 to 160 now prowl what's left of the wilderness in South Florida.
For the past 35 years, the federal plan for saving the panther from extinction has called for creating at least two more panther colonies somewhere else — even if it's outside Florida.
All three populations need to have at least 240 panthers to be viable, the plan says.
But no other state that has prime panther habitat has wanted to take the big cats, and officials have shied away from trying to relocate any into another part of Florida because of the potential controversy.
Although the group has discussed the idea of moving some panthers northward to create a new population, said Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "There is absolutely no plan … to translocate or to move any panthers at this time."