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Biggest critic of rancher losses to Florida panthers is first to get government reimbursement

Liesa Priddy, an Immokalee rancher, was appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012. At a commission meeting this week, she complained about Florida panthers killing ranchers' calves, but did not mention that she is the first Florida rancher to be reimbursed by the federal government for those losses. [Photo  courtesy of FWC]
Liesa Priddy, an Immokalee rancher, was appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012. At a commission meeting this week, she complained about Florida panthers killing ranchers' calves, but did not mention that she is the first Florida rancher to be reimbursed by the federal government for those losses. [Photo courtesy of FWC]
Published Nov. 18, 2016

Nobody has been as vocal about Florida panthers killing cattle as state wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy, whose family has owned the JB Ranch in Immokalee for decades.

On Wednesday, during a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg, Priddy spent about 20 minutes going on about how much the endangered cats cost ranchers in lost calves, even though ranchers "are providing the best panther habitat in Florida." She complained about how slowly scientists are responding to her request for new population estimates.

What Priddy didn't mention is that she is the first Florida rancher ever to be reimbursed by the federal government for losing cattle to the growing colony of hungry panthers.

"It's a milestone," said Larry Williams, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in South Florida.

He said he's hopeful Priddy's success will inspire other Florida cattle ranchers to make claims as well, overcoming their frequently stated reluctance to take money from a federal government many of them do not trust.

Williams said Priddy was being paid for panthers killing "multiple calves" at her ranch, but neither he nor Priddy could recall how much money Priddy will be receiving.

Priddy said it wouldn't be nearly enough to cover all her losses.

"It only pays you 75 percent," she said in an interview. And she's not being reimbursed for all the calves she's lost over the years, just for the ones in a specific time period.

She said the process of getting repaid by the Farm Service Agency was extremely frustrating.

"We're having to pry that money out of the federal government, literally," she said. "It hasn't been an easy process." She said the bureaucrats act like the money "is coming out of their own personal checkbooks."

Still, she said, "I feel like it's a program we can't not take advantage of. It's a matter of staying in business or not. Cattle prices are half what they were last year. You've got to do everything you can to make the ranch profitable."

Like Williams, she's hopeful other ranchers can follow her example and get reimbursed too.

Environmental advocates and federal wildlife officials have been talking for a decade about trying to get money for the ranchers under a program begun to reimburse cattlemen and sheep ranchers out West for livestock losses to endangered wolves and other predators.

The problem is proving the cause of their losses. The rules say the federal government can't pay out a dime unless there's some proof that a federally endangered species killed the ranchers' animals.

Florida panthers hunt at night and routinely hide their prey after killing it. That makes it nearly impossible for ranchers to find what they've lost, much less prove panthers caused it.

But a University of Florida study that put tracking devices on Priddy's cattle and the cattle at another ranch documented that panthers were indeed taking about 3 percent of the calves. That works out to "about 1,200 calves a year that all the ranchers are losing," Priddy said. If you figure each calf weighs about 550 pounds, she said, "that's $660,000 that ranches in just two counties in Florida are losing. That's a conservative estimate."

Williams said his agency worked out an agreement with the Farm Service Agency to provide proof by showing the ranchers' inventory at the start of the calving season and the inventory at the end, and then document through radio-collar and GPS tags that panthers had crossed the ranch during the time the calves disappeared.

Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental organization that has been working on panther protection for more than decade, said that if she were in Priddy's boots, she'd do the same thing. She predicts the payment program "will be really helpful for people losing a small number of animals. What I don't want to see is it becoming an incentive to keep losing animals by still doing the same thing you're doing."

Instead, she said, her group works with ranchers and other livestock owners to find ways to protect herds from falling victim to the panthers, and conversely to protect the panthers from being regarded as an enemy.

At the commission meeting, another commissioner and rancher, Ron "Alligator" Bergeron, suggested trying to persuade the Legislature to fund a similar reimbursement effort for ranchers. Priddy rejected that idea.

"Since they're a federally endangered species," she said, "I really think it's something that should be federally funded. It's an animal for the whole country, not just for Floridians."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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