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New draft of state panther policy no longer puts focus on livestock

The executive director of Florida's wildlife agency has produced a second version of a new policy on panthers that now includes input from the agency's biologists, after a first draft sparked an uproar.

The new version, posted on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission web site on Wednesday, no longer says the agency will focus primarily on saving livestock from hungry panthers. The new one also makes it plain the big cats will not be taken off the endangered species list any time soon.

"This position paper is not intended to and does not change the existing listing status or any associated legal protections for Florida panthers," it says. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on officially adopting the document at a Sept. 2 meeting in Fort Lauderdale.

"I think this draft is much better," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The original version produced such a backlash at a June meeting that commissioners postponed voting on it. Some critics said they feared it was an attempt to take panthers off the endangered list and put them on the list of game for hunting.

That version by executive director Nick Wiley was not given to the agency's panther biologists to review until it was done. That version was written at the behest of, then edited by, one of the wildlife commissioners, Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Priddy a commissioner in 2012, during a time when her JB Ranch lost 10 calves to panthers, according to a University of Florida study. She estimated each calf cost her $1,000, and contended she has lost more of them to Florida's official state animal.

She and Wiley both said last month that her work on the controversial policy rewrite was not a conflict of interest.

"I don't see anything in this policy that's going to benefit me personally," Priddy told the Tampa Bay Times last month. "I think it's perfectly logical that I'm the person who's the point person for panthers for the commission, because I'm the one who's living it on a daily basis."

The original version said panthers had outgrown their "carrying capacity" in their habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River — in other words, there are too many for the area to support naturally. The agency's biologists objected to that term because they said no scientific study had produced such a conclusion.

Priddy, however, in an e-mail to Wiley obtained by the Times, said that to her exceeding carrying capacity meant that "panther populations are straining and recurrently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region."

That phrase no longer appears in the policy statement. A memo from one of Wiley's subordinates notes that panther biologists "provided additional science-based input to inform the revised document." It also incorporated comments from the public and other commissioners.

Wiley said the new version "demonstrates that the first 'draft' was clearly a beginning point intended to open a discussion about the future of panther conservation and FWC's role in this regard."

The new version also omits a suggestion that the state agency won't help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service try to create new panther colonies in other parts of the state or in other states. However, it does urge federal officials to show more leadership on that score, and also move more quickly to review and possibly revise its criteria for someday declaring them no longer endangered.

Those criteria, in place for the past 30 years, require three panther colonies of at least 240 adults each. The current estimated population of the only panther colony in Florida is 100 to 180.

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

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