Will Florida’s endangered panther get downlisted? Environmental groups worry animal could lose protection status

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Environmental groups are worried the federal government may soon change the listing status of Florida’s vaunted panther, an animal that's been brought back from the brink of extinction over the past 30 years. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to soon release a five-year review of the panther that will determine if the big cats should be endangered, threatened or delisted altogether. 

The agency was expected to release the review last year. 

"This is a huge issue and it’s a multi-step process that at the end of the day will determine whether or not the panther will be protected under Endangered Species Act," said Amber Crooks, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Crooks is also on the panther recovery team. "Everything is on the table again now that they’re doing this review." 

The panther is managed by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. 

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Florida panthers are considered a distinct subspecies of the cougar or mountain lion, but some fear that taxonomy classification could change in the upcoming review.

The five-year review could trigger anything from no action to completely delisting the animal. 

"There are some big changes that are contemplated in it," Larry Williams, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told FWC members last year. 

The panther is protected at the highest level, so any change would be to downlist or delist the animal, critics say. 

Both agencies are responsible for protecting and helping grow the number of panthers from the current estimate of 120 to 230 adults to three separate populations of 240 big cats. 

"For 55 years we’ve been working to recover these animals and we’ve made some tremendous gains," Williams said at the meeting, which was held in Bonita Springs. "Currently we estimate there are 200 adults and subadults." 

The five-year review also includes what's called a Species Status Assessment. 

"The SSA does not apply policy — it just looks at the science," Williams said. "It took a really hard look at the taxonomy of Florida panthers, and that has been debated in the past. Florida panthers have been considered a unique subspecies and there’s a lot of new technology with genetics." 

A juvenile Florida panther is seen at ZooTampa in January 2020. A review will determine if Florida panthers should be endangered, threatened or delisted.

Taxonomy change expected

Elizabeth Fleming, with Defenders of Wildlife, is a member of the panther recovery team and said she thinks FWS will change the taxonomy. 

"We expect this could be a change in taxonomic status and it could be a change in the protection listing status," Fleming said. "It can change from a subspecies or change the distinct population category, so this document will have the big potential changes included." 

Fleming said she and others were also concerned when FWS added a category for social acceptance of the panther. 

Many ranchers and hunters in central and north Florida don't want more panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River, although that's exactly what's called for in the recovery plan.

"(The SSA) is a prelude to the big issue of whether or not the Florida panther will continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act," Crooks said. "During the last five-year review, the information at the time was that it was endangered and at the highest level of extinction." 

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Crooks said she also fears that the FWS may be considering things like the practicality of recovering a species. If it's not possible, why try, the thinking goes. 

"I do think the agency folks brought in the question of what is doable, but that’s not how things are supposed to work," Crooks said. "They’re supposed to rely on the best available science and the recovery goal is the best available science." 

Social acceptance

Fleming said FWS has not used a social acceptance category in past reviews, but getting ranchers, landowners and hunters to accept panthers north of Lake Okeechobee is one of the listed goals of the recovery plan. 

"The first objective is to maintain and expand panther population in South Florida and across the Caloosahatchee River," Fleming said. "Another is to establish additional populations throughout the historic range. And third is to increase acceptance for living with the Florida panther through education and outreach." 

She said the social acceptance of the animal is a difficult hurdle for recovery.

"(A) main threat is lack of acceptance for sharing the landscape," Fleming said. "That can really be an impediment to recovery if people will not accept that predators roam. People will kill them. People will shoot them." 

Crooks and others are worried that FWS may rely on a "social carrying capacity" facet to the make the final decision, which is typically based on taxonomy, threats and population trends. 

"One of the things we’re red flagging in that document is introducing social or political acceptance into the analytical framework," Crooks said. "This is the first time the idea has been introduced to an SSA document that we’ve seen nationwide." 

Williams said the five-year review also considered ongoing threats like habitat loss, road kills and a neurological disorder that has been documented in both panthers and bobcats in recent years. 

There's also the need to get more panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River. 

"As we’re looking north of the river, that landscape is more fragmented than the lands where the panthers are coming from," Williams said. "In general, south of the river is the big parcels and the big habitat blocks are together." 

Fleming said FWS should add other threats in the five-year review process, that road kills and habitat loss should also be considerations in the Species Status Assessment.

"People have very primal thoughts about living with these animals," Fleming said. "And I think that (FWS) is trying to include practicality … There's also habitat loss and loss to automobiles. If you're going to include the threats, include all of them. Not just the one."  

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.