Reports of Florida panthers preying on domestic animals, cattle on record pace
Florida panthers. Get an inside look at panthers in the historic Everglades. Chad Gillis/news-press.com
The number of verified cases of Florida panthers preying on livestock is on a record pace in 2017.
From ranches near Immokalee to backyards in Golden Gate Estates, panthers have injured or killed 83 animals in 38 separate incidents so far this year, according to a tally kept by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
That compares to 77 animals in 31 incidents in 2016, 20 cases in 2015 and 34 cases in 2014, FWC numbers show. Individual numbers of animals weren't reported in 2014 and 2015.
The most common prey animals are goats, but panthers also have preyed on calves, miniature horses, geese, pigs, cats and an alpaca. Not all of them have died, and some have not been found.
Almost all of the cases have occurred in Golden Gate Estates, but not in any particular part of the sprawling subdivision.
"When you plot them, where these are occurring, it's like a shotgun blast, all over the place," FWC panther biologist Mark Lotz said.
Lotz said he doesn't have a single explanation for the "big spike;" panthers could be preying on more animals or more people could be reporting attacks, he said.
The FWC has increased its education outreach, even hiring a outreach coordinator, and Lotz said that could account for increased prey reports.
The outreach includes posting signs along roads where panthers have preyed on an animal to notify the neighborhood a panther is in the area and to keep pets secure and to not feed wildlife.
Lotz said he also goes door-to-door in those neighborhoods to distribute fliers about how to panther-proof animal enclosures and how to keep bears away.
The problem of preying panthers has prompted the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to set up programs to pay owners when their animals are killed.
Since 2011, the Conservancy has paid out $17,000 to compensate cattle ranchers for lost calves and to help pay to panther-proof backyard livestock pens, senior environmental policy specialist Amber Crooks said.
She said such programs help farmers and ranchers better co-exist with Southwest Florida's native predators.
"It reduces some of the tension when they have some solutions," Crooks said.
Crooks said the program focuses on smaller ranchers, with fewer than 300 head of cattle; the panther-proof pen project is intended to help hobby farmers. Pens are not viable options for ranches.
The USDA program, part of the Farm Bill, focuses on larger ranchers who lose calves to panthers. Figures weren't immediately available about the size of the program.
Ranches contain important panther habitat, but that habitat also makes ranches vulnerable to panther predation.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have been talking about setting up another program that would pay ranchers for their "ecological services."
"We're still trying to figure out how to make that work," Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said.