Editorial: Positive step on panther policy

Published Aug. 17, 2015

Score another win for open government over secrecy. In a sharp turnaround, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has dropped a bid to significantly weaken protections for Florida panthers. A new approach the commission will consider next month could protect the big cats in a more meaningful way, although it still complains about the state's burden to increase the panther population. Given the commission's history, Floridians should remain vigilant.

The change in direction comes two months after the agency's director, in charting a new course for panther policy, declared that the panthers had outgrown their "carrying capacity" in their South Florida habitat. In other words, as the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported, there were too many to support naturally. But the commission's executive director, Nick Wiley, did not give that version to the agency's panther biologists until after it was drafted. And it was written at the behest of and then edited by one of Wiley's commission bosses, Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012 during a time her ranch lost 10 calves to panthers, according to a state study. Now it also turns out that Priddy also is part of a group seeking a federal permit to kill panthers if they interfere with the proposed massive development of their land.

The policy directive would have had the state focus largely on saving livestock from hungry panthers. The agency's biologists strongly objected after seeing the initial draft, arguing such a policy would not be based on science. After a public uproar, the commission staff produced a new policy that makes it plain the cats will not be losing any state or federal protections at this point.

This entire episode could have been avoided had the director worked with his staff and the public on such a controversial plan instead of with a rancher on the agency's governing board who has an obvious conflict between her public position and private business interests. This has become all too routine under Scott's administration, which is the major reason that stakeholders on so many issues question the motivations of Scott's appointees.

The amended policy that will go before commissioners Sept. 2 still has some weasel language about the need to better address "human-panther conflicts." But it also takes a larger view, calls on a closer partnership between the state and federal governments on protection efforts and points to the need to reduce panther deaths on Florida's highways.

In talking points prepared in advance of next month's meeting, the commission said the new proposal "clarified" points that caused a "public misunderstanding." That's a self-serving way to spin the retreat on a terrible idea that was hatched out of public view. Coming from a wildlife agency that just declared open season on bears for the first time in 21 years, the evolving panther policy is a reminder of the need for public oversight of this critical agency.