Once again, Gov. Rick Scott's administration favors political self-interest over science. This time, the Florida panther is the target as the state listens to a rancher rather than its own biologists as it attempts to overturn decades of sound public policy. Public outrage has delayed action by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on this self-serving maneuver until September, which at least gives more Floridians time to stand up for the panther.
The genesis of this foolish effort is becoming clearer and more disturbing. As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported last weekend, the state's top wildlife official started pushing for an overhaul of the panther policy at the suggestion of rancher Liesa Priddy. She happens to have been appointed to the wildlife commission by Scott in 2012, and she complains that her JB Ranch lost 10 calves to panthers over two years. And just like that, the state agency charged with protecting wildlife became the agency trying to protect private business interests.
The proposed policy change essentially finds that there are too many panthers in their habitat south of the Caloosahatchee River, which runs from near Lake Okeechobee north of the Everglades. The wildlife commission's scientists disagreed and said there is nothing to support the claim that the area cannot naturally support that many panthers. To Priddy, that wasn't the point. She said in an email to the commission's executive director that she means the panthers "are straining and recurrently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region.'' In other words, personal frustration should trump established science.
For generations, the state and federal governments have been committed to protecting the panther. The state halted panther hunting in 1958, and panthers were first listed as endangered in 1967. For more than 30 years, the federal government has said there must be two more panther populations established outside South Florida and all three populations must have at least 240 adults before the panther can be taken off the endangered list. Now Priddy and the commission's executive director, Nick Wiley, have arbitrarily concluded that is not realistic and that the state should focus on the concerns of landowners and their animals rather than protecting panthers.
This is exactly the wrong way to abruptly change public policy — and for all the wrong reasons. This is the wildlife conservation commission, not the eradication commission or the Florida Cattlemen's Association. While the panther population has been rising, there is no consensus between state biologists and ranchers on how many are roaming this portion of Florida. The commission should be focused on protecting their habitat and growing new populations in other areas, not giving up and authorizing the killing of panthers that have become a nuisance.
This is one more example where decades of environmental and wildlife preservation efforts are being targeted by the Scott administration as too expensive or too inconvenient. It is one more example where the state cannot be trusted to protect its natural resources and the federal government has to remain involved to prevent the erosion of years of progress. And it is one more example where the voices of Floridians have to rise up against special interests and for the continued protection of a precious resource.