Panther review won't lessen protections
Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com
A federal agency charged with protecting endangered species is taking a close look at the Florida panther, one of more than a dozen animals whose listing status is being reviewed this year.
While some news outlets and televisions reports have suggested that this review could somehow chip away at big cat safeguards, panther protections are not in jeopardy.
"This is just a process to gather the best available science on categories such as biology, habitat conditions, conservation measures that have been implemented, the current threat status and the trends of those threats and any new information or data corrections," said David Shindle, a panther biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act.
Any listing change would require separate action from the wildlife service, Shindle said.
And while the service could eventually decide to keep the panther listed as endangered, lower it to threatened or remove it from the list, the panther would likely still be protected under other laws and regulations.
Public comment for the current panther review is being accepted through Aug. 29. Shindle said this process will likely be completed by the summer of 2019.
"The comments that come in are more expressing simple opinion of 'we are in favor or against change,'" Shindle said. "We have to put emotions and popular opinions aside and work with the best available science. But it is a good way to take the pulse on people's opinions on this cat."
This review, though, could be the start of a new designation for the Florida panthers. Instead of being a subspecies of the cougar, recent genetic work has shown that cougars and pumas across North America are basically the same.
"This is different because there's some discussion across the United States, really, about the whole puma species and the Florida panther," said Elizabeth Fleming, with Defenders of Wildlife. "Genetic work has determined there isn't any major difference among puma in North America, which would mean it is similar to cougar and mountain lion or whatever you want to call it. (But) there are others that believe there is morphology and the geographic isolation and separation can result in differences among different populations over time."
The Florida panther was listed as endangered subspecies in 1967 and is the only known breeding population in the eastern United States.
The current recovery plan, adopted in 2008, says the service will consider delisting the panther when three populations of 240 or more breeding adults have been established and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured for the long-term.
The report lists the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas as possible future expansion areas.
Some panther advocates say controlling development is a top priority for saving what's left of the panther's habitat.
"If we continue to develop as we are now, if we stay on course, over the next few decades there will be a tipping point for panther and other wildlife habitat that's being impacted by development," said Amber Crooks with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "The panther has been in this state for a millennia and it needs to have the same protections in place because of the continued threats of loss of habitat and development."
More than a century ago, the wildlife service says, panthers and cougars west of the Mississippi River exchanged genetics as the big cats lived throughout the Southeastern United States.
There were an estimated 20 panthers in the 1970s, and the service introduced several female Texas cougars in the 1990s to help increase genetic diversity.
Texas pumas, or cougars, were thought to be the closest genetically to the Florida cats. Five of the eight females produced at least 20 kittens.
"I think the top issues will be the taxonomy issue but one of the other big issues they'll take a look at is continued threats to the Florida panther, threats from development and additional traffic," Crooks said.
Some of the recommendations from the report include:
- Maintain the quantity and quality of habitat in South Florida to ensure panthers can travel in their current range and even expand to other areas.
- Secure more habitat on private lands.
- Develop a land acquisition program to expand the functionality of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County.
- Support local efforts to preserve panther habitat and to acquire development rights on targeted lands.
- Secure a corridor between Big Cypress National Preserve and Okaloacoochee Slough to ensure the cats can disperse from their primary breeding range.
- Identify and possibly eliminate future planned roads that would dissect or impact panther habitat or travel corridors.
- Maintain and enhance genetic diversity.
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How to be heard
Comments can be submitted by mail to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Florida Ecological Service Field Office, 12085 State Road 29 South, Immokalee, 34142, or email email@example.com or fax (772) 562.4288.