ST. PETERSBURG — The future of Florida's state animal is being debated by five state and federal officials, one environmental activist and a major landowner, all behind closed doors.
The seven members of the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team began meeting last fall. They gathered Tuesday at the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg for a two-day session. An agenda online said the group was supposed to hear from scientific experts and discuss how to encourage the big cats to expand their South Florida population into Central Florida.
A Times reporter who attempted to sit in on the discussion was evicted by federal officials who said the meetings are "by invitation only." Environmental advocates who have previously asked to attend also have been told no.
A provision of the Endangered Species Act allows such groups to meet behind closed doors, according to Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A summary of the meetings is posted on the agency's website, and Williams promised there would be public forums on the committee's proposals.
"I can understand why anyone would want to come" sit in on the meetings, said Williams, who leads the agency's South Florida office. However, he said he believes the group will function better outside public view.
"The team is trying to come up with ideas for panther recovery that we can roll out to the public," he said. "They need times when they can speak candidly."
That's not the view of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental group that owns land in panther habitat.
"The service should be open and transparent as a governmental agency by allowing all interested stakeholders from the public they serve to participate," said Jennifer Hecker, the Conservancy's natural resource policy director. The conservancy has been trying to get into the meetings since they began last fall.
Panthers, which once roamed the entire Southeast, are now largely confined to the swamps, pastures and forests of Florida's southern tip. Although the population dwindled to about 30 a few decades ago, about 100 to 160 now prowl what's left of the wilderness in South Florida.
Every plan for pulling them back from the brink of extinction calls for establishing a new population of panthers somewhere else, either in Florida or in another state.
A major topic of discussions this week was how to persuade big landowners to allow panthers to live on their property, Williams said. Most of the potential panther habitat in Central Florida is privately owned, unlike the land south of the Caloosahatchee River where most of them now live, he said.
One possibility, he said, is to pay them for maintaining, restoring or creating a landscape that's inviting for panthers.
To view agendas, meeting summaries and a list of members of the Panther Recovery Implementation Team, click on: http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/FloridaPantherRIT.html.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.