On Thursday, a Florida panther was struck and killed by a car in Collier County, Fla. The state's motorists have killed 17 of the big cats so far this year. Given that the best estimates put the remaining wild panther population somewhere between 100 and 180 animals, Florida drivers have wiped out roughly 10 percent of the panther population in just seven months.
Last year, Florida drivers killed an unprecedented 24 panthers, according to statistics maintained by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Collisions with automobiles are the number 1 cause of panther mortality, responsible for roughly two-thirds of all panther deaths each year. And those numbers are rising.
But the Conservation Commission isn't terribly concerned about these numbers. It is considering a proposal, put forth by a commission member who owns a cattle ranch in the middle of panther country, to drastically cut back on the protections panthers enjoy. "Panther populations are straining and currently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region," the memo reads. It suggests reconsidering the panther's "endangered" status under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Under the law, there need to be at least three healthy panther populations of 240 individuals each for the government to reconsider the panther's conservation status. With only one current population of 100 to 180 cats, the state is a long way from achieving this goal. The difficulty of setting up two additional panther populations appears to be the primary reason why the Conservation Commission wants to throw in the towel.
"The current recovery criteria are aspirational rather than practical in nature," the Commission writes. "Under this federal recovery plan, Florida will never be able to accomplish the goals necessary to recover panther populations to a point where the subspecies can be delisted." The proposal calls for the state of Florida to stop dedicating staff and funding to the federal conservation plan.
Public backlash against the proposal has been vehement, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The proposal's claim that panther populations have "exceeded carrying capacity" for their range has been ridiculed by scientists. The Times quotes panther biologist Darryl Land as saying "there is no science supporting the statement about 'exceeding carrying capacity.'"
The rancher who drafted the proposal, Liesa Priddy, was appointed to the Conservation Commission by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2012. She says her ranch lost 10 calves to panthers over a period of several years, with each calf worth about $1,000. But she insists there's no conflict of interest in her plan to reconsider panther protections. "I don't see anything in this policy that's going to benefit me personally," she told the Times.
There are at least twice as many cattle -- 400 of them -- on Priddy's ranch as there are panthers in the entire state of Florida. The state is already working on a plan to compensate ranchers for the costs of maintaining prime panther habitat. It would pay ranchers a yearly stipend based on the amount of acreage they own and the land management practices they implement.
But Priddy and the Conservation Commission are proposing that the state abandon the federal conservation strategy before the compensation plan can be fully tested. Some commission members are even suggesting that the current panther population is too high, and may need to be cut. "We are not talking about having a hunt,” Commission Director Nick Wiley told the Wall Street Journal. But “we might have to euthanize an animal from time to time.”
There's no question that restoring the Florida panther population to a healthy level is a significant challenge. But with the population on the knife edge of survival, and dozens of animals getting killed by motorists annually, it seems like an odd time to propose scaling back protections. Doing so could give Florida the dubious distinction of being one of the few states to kill off its official state animal.