SARASOTA -- The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Tuesday delayed action on a draft position paper that could revise strategic priorities for the conservation of the Florida panther.
The agreement among FWC officials came at the tail end of hours of public comment. More than 50 concerned citizens, conservationists and government officials filled a large ballroom inside the Hyatt Regency Sarasota as they discussed Florida's state animal, its recovery and fate. The opinions on conservation were split from environmentalists who pushed for the expansion of panthers' range to ranchers who spoke up in favor of the state agency's proposal.
At the center of the discussion is a federal conservation plan that calls for two additional populations of at least 240 panthers and young panthers in central/north Florida and/or other southeastern states. FWC officials say in the draft position statement that there's been no progress in achieving that particular recovery criteria.
FWC Commissioner Aliese P. "Liesa" Priddy, who said she has regularly seen panthers on her property since 1996, asked what the next step is for panther protection.
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"We made a lot of strides, we have a lot of panthers now. It doesn't really matter if there are 180 or 250," Priddy said. "We know we have a lot more than we used to."
FWC panther biologists estimate there are 100-180 panther adults and yearlings in Florida. During a 36-slide presentation by Kipp Frohlich, Deputy Director of the FWC Division of Habitat and Species Conservation and Gil McRae, Director of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, road kills were cited as a leading cause of death for Florida panthers. According to the FWC, 2014 was the highest year on record 25 verified panther deaths from collisions with vehicles.
According to Frohlich, panthers were once abundant not just in Florida but throughout the southeast but were not managed in any way. The hunting and over-exploitation of panthers led to the decrease in numbers.
"With rarity, comes protection," Frohlich said, "and that's when the management phase or recovery/management phase began."
Many public speakers voiced opposition of the draft plan and called on commissioners to delay voting on the plan.
Nancy Smith, who described herself as a concerned citizen from Collier County, said panthers aren't the problem -- people are.
"People are going to see them more because we're in their area," she said of animal sightings. "When you take things away from them, where are they supposed to go? Think about it."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.