By Ben Nottingham Manager, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Lisa Östberg, Southwest Florida coordinator, Defenders of Wildlife
Brad Cornell Southwest Florida Policy Associate, Collier County Audubon Society/Audubon Florida
We have all read recently with sadness and some alarm about native wildlife getting into trouble, often in unexpected places. Bears sleeping on porches, foraging for food in Ave Maria or Clam Pass Park, coyotes taking small pets, occasional alligator attacks including a tour guide feeding them marshmallows and an elderly woman near a canal, plus panthers eating goats and other livestock, have all been in the news.
No doubt other encounters and livestock losses don’t get reported. Why is this happening?
These native predators and other wildlife species in our backyards, like deer, skunks, raccoons, owls, snakes and opossums, have lived in the swamps and woods of Southwest Florida for generations. Our human communities have been growing into these same habitats causing an increase in close encounters. With its abundant wildlife, vast wilderness, iconic Everglades, coasts, prairies and forests, Florida is much more like the Wild West or even African forests and savannahs.
However, living in these habitat-rich landscapes comes with responsibility for learning to live sustainably with the “locals.” We all want to protect our quality of life and the wildlife that is part of that. To avoid sad and sometimes dangerous conflicts, there are many organizations and agencies working hard to share effective strategies for Living with Wildlife — ways to minimize our risks and keep pets, livestock and wildlife safe. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) website has lots of good advice: http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/
FWC, along with their federal colleagues at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and many area wildlife and civic groups, 4-H Clubs and area ranchers are providing public opportunities to learn about Living with Wildlife strategies — the biggest one is the Third Annual Florida Panther Festival, with free admission, on Saturday at North Collier Regional Park next to Sun & Fun Lagoon. The event, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will include live bands, great food vendors, many educational booths, guided trail walks (space limited; reservations required) and a fascinating Living with Wildlife Pavilion laid out as a model Golden Gate Estates backyard demonstrating important ways to minimize conflicts with wildlife and enjoy life in the woods.
There will also be an Exotic Pet Amnesty Day Event at the Panther Festival on Saturday (see: http://m.myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/amnesty-day-events/) aimed at reducing unwanted pets like pythons and monitor lizards from being released into the wild.
Meanwhile, field trips are available on Sunday to explore panther habitat by bicycle, swamp buggy and on foot. Nominal fees will be charged. Registration is first come, first served. Signed up at the festival or online now at www.FloridaPantherFestival.com. Other public outreach on Living with Wildlife will be at the Collier County Fair in March and the Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle in February. Look for us!
Wherever you live, here are some important strategies, from FWC, to practice so we can keep the “awe” in viewing wildlife and protect our own pets, property and the wildlife that make Southwest Florida incredibly unique:
* Feeding wildlife causes loss of their natural fear of humans, is dangerous and can be a death sentence for bears, alligators and other species.
* Making simple accommodations will often solve the problem of foraging bears, raccoons and other animals. Remove the free meal attractant by feeding pets indoors, suspending bird feeders at least 8 feet up between trees, removing ripe fruit, and keeping trash secured until pickup morning.
* Additional modifications, like constructing a bear-resistant garbage can caddy and securing compost piles, gardens and beehives behind bear-resistant electric fencing, will discourage black bears. See FWC’s guidance for setting up electric fencing plus a video: http://myfwc.com/media/1333878/ElectricFence.pdf.
* Bringing pets/livestock inside a barn, “safe pen,” or secure structure at night will keep them safe from hungry predators — a vital strategy.
Although relocation is sometimes necessary, trapping and relocating wildlife is a last resort and only warranted if all other measures have failed and an animal becomes a threat. Removing one animal may only serve to open up territory for others to move in. Eliminating attractants and protecting livestock will keep everyone safe!