Over scientists' objections, rancher pushes panther policy

State biologists estimate there could be between 100 and 180 panthers roaming a habitat eroded by development. Some ranchers think the numbers are higher, perhaps ranging toward 300.
State biologists estimate there could be between 100 and 180 panthers roaming a habitat eroded by development. Some ranchers think the numbers are higher, perhaps ranging toward 300.
Published Jul. 11, 2015

The state pays nearly $1 million a year to biologists to study the Florida panther.

Yet when the state's top wildlife official decided to rewrite Florida's panther policy to overhaul how the state manages the endangered cats, he didn't consult them until the document was done.

Instead, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley brainstormed almost exclusively with an Immokalee ranch owner who has lost thousands of dollars thanks to panthers.

The rancher, Liesa Priddy, was appointed to the wildlife commission in 2012 by Gov. Rick Scott, during a time when her JB Ranch lost 10 calves to panthers in a two-year period. She estimates each calf cost her $1,000, and contends she has lost plenty more of them to Florida's official state animal.

She and Wiley both say that her work on the controversial policy rewrite was not a conflict of interest. Instead, those monetary losses give her opinions greater weight.

"I don't see anything in this policy that's going to benefit me personally," said Priddy, a third-generation rancher. "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."

When Wiley formally unveiled the new policy at a wildlife commission meeting last month, it sparked such a strong backlash from the public that the commissioners agreed to postpone any decision on it until September.

Priddy is the one who first suggested to Wiley back in January that it was time to revise the state's panther policy to say that instead of helping panthers spread throughout the state, the wildlife agency would focus on preventing further losses of livestock and pets. Documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that Priddy was so closely involved in drafting the new policy, she edited drafts line by line and suggested changes in wording.

The policy rewrite says that panthers have 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. When the wildlife commission's scientists did get to see the policy, after it was drafted, they strongly disagreed.

"There is no science supporting the statement about 'exceeding carrying capacity,' " panther biologist Darrell Land, who has been studying the big cats since 1985, said in a May email to his bosses. "I am unaware of any analysis … that reached that conclusion. … It is an opinion, not a fact."

Wiley said he had "a lot of good debates" with the agency's panther biologists about using that term, but decided to keep it in anyway.

"This was not a scientific paper anyway," he told the Times. "It's a policy paper."

Priddy, in a May email to Wiley, spelled out that the phrase meant something other than what the scientists had in mind. To her, exceeding carrying capacity meant that "panther populations are straining and recurrently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region."

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Panthers once roamed across the Southeast, but now are largely confined to Florida's southern tip below the Caloosahatchee. In the 1990s, scientists estimate no more than 30 remained, many suffering birth defects caused by inbreeding.

To save the species, the state agency brought in eight female Texas cougars — a close cousin — and turned them loose to breed with the remaining male panthers. Their offspring were free of birth defects, spurring a population boom.

State biologists now estimate there could be between 100 and 180 panthers roaming through a habitat eroded by development. Priddy and other ranchers are convinced the numbers are far higher, perhaps ranging toward 300.

Panthers have been classified as endangered since 1967. For more than 30 years, the federal government's official stance has been that for panthers to be taken off the endangered list, there must be two more panther populations established outside South Florida, and each of the three populations must number 240 adults. That goal was set based on scientific studies, and renewed most recently in 2006.

The policy paper that Wiley and Priddy wrote suggests that those goals are not realistic, so it's time to change them. Wiley's policy paper also says the wildlife agency wants more flexibility in dealing with panthers — in other words, the authority to kill cats that have become a nuisance to humans, the way it does with alligators and bears.

The policy also declares that starting new populations is no longer the state's concern, but solely the federal government's. From now on, it says, the state's top priority will be preventing losses of domestic animals and making panthers more tolerable to landowners.

In his email to his bosses, the biologist Land said that complaints from ranchers and other residents that the panther population had grown too large is wrong.

"Nature changes over time," he wrote, "and I could make the case that our natural systems are more like the way they were centuries ago."

The biologist who has studied Florida panthers the longest is Roy McBride, 78, who first tracked one in the 1970s, and who brought in the Texas cougars in 1995. He still produces the official panther population estimate every year. In 2013, he calculated there were 104.

McBride said no one showed him Wiley and Priddy's paper until it became public. He laughed about suggestions that hundreds of panthers are stalking through the wilderness, explaining that each panther needs to eat at least one deer a week.

If there are so many panthers running around, he said, "What are they eating?"

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes