July 31, 2014

Cry of the Panther

Florida panthers belong to what is commonly believed to be the last extant race of mountain lion in the East. Like all mountain lions, they are creatures of big, wild country; and they closely resemble their Western and South American cousins in behavior and appearance (although they are slightly smaller and darker and have longer legs and larger nostrils). There is one major difference, however: Florida panthers are among the most endangered mammals on earth. Even today they are widely perceived as semi-mythical. As recently as the 1970s there was serious debate in the scientific community about whether they still existed. There are about 100 left.

Once the Florida panther prowled most of our Southeast, but now it's restricted to Southwest Florida. "This animal is on a collision course with extinction," declared Larry Richardson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on the steaming afternoon of June 21, 2004, as we bounced on a big-wheeled swamp buggy through and past oak hammocks, slash pine, cabbage palm, cypress domes, sloughs, mixed swamps and sawgrass prairies.

Richardson is the biologist at the 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles east of Naples. It's wild country all right, but "big" only by human standards. An adult male panther requires and defends a hunting territory of something like 130,000 acres; a female, 50,000.

Panthers also use nearby tracts of wild land such as the Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve, Cork-screw Swamp, and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Although the state and federal government have invested heavily in protecting panthers, most scientists believe the existing management strategy can't succeed, mainly because it fails to protect sufficient habitat. Few people outside the scientific community realize how flawed the current approach is.

In addition, laws requiring control of development if it threatens panthers are not being enforced. If a development proposal in panther country will destroy wetlands and does not demonstrate proper "avoidance" or "minimization," or offer reasonable "mitigation," the FWS can ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the dredge-and-fill permit. On rare occasions the FWS asks; never does the Corps deny. When the FWS finds that a project will jeopardize an endangered or threatened species, it is required to issue a "jeopardy opinion," which means the project can't happen unless the developer implements "reasonable and prudent alternatives." The last jeopardy opinion the FWS issued for panthers was in 1994.

Two adult male panthers and two females, one with four kittens, had been passing through the refuge, but my chances of seeing one were nil. In 15 years here, Richardson has seen only three panthers he hasn't gone after with dogs or radio-telemetry equipment. Panthers are just a little part of what makes panther country so special. They're an "umbrella species." That is, you can't have them without having most everything else. In a clearing, Richardson switched off the engine; and we sipped Gatorade beneath a massive live oak where a butterfly orchid, one of 43 species in the area, was in full bloom. A pileated woodpecker swooped up into the same tree. A ruby-throated hummingbird perched on one of its branches. Great-crested flycatchers shouted all around us. Earlier, we had flushed a barred owl; later, a red-shouldered hawk, a swallow-tailed kite, a limpkin, a doe and her fawn, and a Florida softshell turtle. The refuge supports crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, wood storks, snail kites, all wading birds native to south Florida, river otters, Big Cypress fox squirrels, eastern indigo snakes, and other rarely seen creatures, many on state or federal protection lists.

Panthers live in what's called the "western Everglades," where some of the same type of ill-planned, poorly regulated development now costing Americans $8.2 billion in restoration funds in the eastern Everglades is underway. "We know how to save panthers," says Richardson. "The problem is convincing the public we need to. This cat has to have habitat. If it doesn't, we're going to keep spending millions on a remnant population. And for what? To look at them in a zoo?"

Ten years ago, FWS biologist Andy Eller, who was fired this fall after accusing the agency of failing to enforce the Endangered Species Act, co-authored a habitat-acquisition plan for an additional 370,000 acres. It might have cost $50 million-not much compared with the billions earmarked for the eastern Everglades. The Clinton administration sat on its hands; the Bush administration said no.

After meeting with rich-ardson last June, I chartered a Cessna 172 in Naples so that Eller could show me the rest of panther country from the air. We flew north past Bonita Springs and Fort Myers-over rock mines and sprawling new developments in various stages, from raw dirt wounds to swaths of fresh asphalt and cement. Many were named for what they are destroying-for example, 584-acre Wildcat Run, 196-acre Southern Marsh, 239-acre Cypress Creek, 1,797-acre Hawk's Haven, 1,000-acre The Habitat, and 1,928-acre Winding Cypress. Eller told me that when he reviewed this last project, he found that the Corps of Engineers had misclassified 370 acres of wetlands as uplands. But the developer complained to his superiors. "I was ordered to back off under threat of insubordination," he says. Just since 2000 the FWS has issued 20 biological opinions that have permitted major destruction of panther habitat. About 16,000 acres were destroyed or degraded in 11 of these projects; losses in the remaining nine weren't calculated.

Eller says he was told to rewrite his biological opinion for Winding Cypress with a "positive" spin and that, when he refused, it was rewritten for him. Recently, when he set out to write jeopardy opinions required by the Endangered Species Act, he says he was told it's Bush administration policy not to write them-for any species.

Eller's real trouble began after June 25, 2002, the day The Washington Post quoted him as calling the non-enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act "heinous." His work before that had always been lauded with good performance reviews; it even earned him a major award from the Collier County Audubon Society. After June 25, 2002, however, he metamorphosed into a slacker, at least according to his superiors. Eller was taken off panthers, placed on a "performance improvement plan," and suspended for five days, allegedly for being late with a biological opinion. "They backdated the start of consultation and gave me roughly 60 days to do what normally takes 135 days," he says.

In January 2004, he was suspended for 14 days, allegedly for being discourteous to a developer's consultant who, according to written testimony by other biologists, had a reputation for being "difficult" and "demanding," and had even threatened a libel suit. On May 4, 2004, Eller and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a joint complaint (unresolved at this writing) under the Data Quality Act of 2000, which requires federal agencies to base management of fish, wildlife and other resources on the best information available. Eller was fired on Nov. 5. From his home in Vero Beach, he is now preparing to appeal his termination.

Half an hour into our flight, the wounds in the landscape faded and we banked east into agricultural land, mostly orange groves. The conservation strategy by which the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission jointly manage panthers assumes that they avoid agricultural lands; therefore no compensation is required when developers convert them to malls, golf courses and housing units. ("We can make more money growing Yankees," the farmers like to say.) But panthers depend heavily on agricultural lands. The conservation strategy, based on daytime telemetry data from the early 1990s, assumes that panthers are restricted to forests. But panthers are nocturnal; they bed down in forests to avoid daytime heat, then range broadly through open country at night. The conservation strategy favors developers, reducing compensation by throwing out not just ag lands but forest patches smaller than two square miles. It even throws out forest patches of any size more than 90 meters from another forest, based on the fiction that cat behavior doesn't change after sunset. There is no academic disagreement here. The scientific community is virtually unanimous in condemning the conservation strategy as a prescription for panther extinction.

At length, the orange groves gave way to cattle range-open grasslands interspersed with clumps of live oaks and cabbage palms, far more valuable to panthers. The conservation strategy also absolves developers of providing compensation when they build on these lands-it defines cattle range as "avoided habitat," but it's "avoided" only by day.

From cattle range we swung south over the Big Cypress National Preserve, wet woods of dwarf cypress with taller trees on scattered domes. At Route 75-"Alligator Alley"-Eller pointed out a panther "undercrossing." Highways are probably the second-biggest source of panther mortality, after the cats themselves, which kill other cats in defense of shrinking territories.

The undercrossings have helped. So has major habitat protection by the state, such as acquisition of Okaloa-coochee Slough State Forest and Dinner Island Ranch in Hendry County, Corkscrew Regional Ecosys-tem Watershed in Lee County, and Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County. But what has made panther recovery biologically feasible is the injection of genes from eight Texas females released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 1995 into a population so inbred that extinction seemed imminent. At this time, Florida panthers had low sperm counts, deformed sperm, poor sperm motility, undescended testicles, cow-licks, heart problems and right crooks at the tips of their tails. Today they have none of those defects. They're bigger and more vigorous. Now when biologists tree them with hounds, they don't crouch and snarl; they leap wildly from tree to tree. In nine years the population has more than doubled. Before modern development isolated them, Florida panthers roamed over vast areas and often bred with Texas cats, so "hybridization" with the imported females wasn't a concern.

"Genetic restoration is an enormous success story that hasn't been told," says Jane Comiskey, a scientist at the University of Tennessee. "This is at a time when only 9 percent of endangered species are showing improvement, and usually for reasons not related to intervention."

That panther recovery is now feasible biologically and isn't happening is precisely what Comiskey, Eller and Richardson find so maddening. They, along with most of their peers, agree that genetic restoration alone cannot save Florida panthers, because the conservation strategy of the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fails to protect sufficient habitat. In 1999, responding to widespread criticism of that strategy, the FWS appointed a nine-person team, which included Comiskey, to draft a new approach.

The team had its 12th and last meeting in August 2002. But its recommendations-for delineating protection zones, preventing further disturbances in the zones, and defining panther habitat in a manner that encompasses all panther requirements-have not been implemented by the FWS. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is stonewalling," charges Comiskey. Before that final meeting, Comiskey learned through the grapevine that the FWS had dropped a chapter she had coauthored for the team's report with famed biologist and panther tracker Roy McBride. The chapter (which offered an alternative view to that of David Maehr, the state's former panther leader on whose research the FWS based its panther recovery effort) was reinstated after Comiskey threatened to inform peer reviewers about the censorship. But she says the team report now before the public does not include the definition of habitat that members agreed to, includes material added by the FWS without the team's consent, and is rife with contradictory statements and uncritical references to Maehr's work. And yet, says Comiskey, "They're trying to call it a 'team strategy.'"

The peer reviewers' comments on the team's draft document, which have been available for almost two years, confirm the main points Comiskey, McBride and other team members had made about the research on which the FWS based its recovery effort. But the agency, which seems more interested in protecting itself than panthers, won't allow the team to include the comments.

An independent scientific panel convened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the FWS also dismissed the recovery effort as a failure, using words like "untenable," "egregious," "inexcusable," and "bad science" to describe Maehr's research, and noting that he had deleted key data that would have undermined his assertions. (When I asked Maehr about this charge, he said, "We left out animals from the Everglades because we felt this wasn't good panther habitat. At no time has there been intent to go around something by excluding data to get an answer we were looking for." And, he adds, "Much of the research that has been criticized was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when personal computers were just beginning their rise-i.e., no one in the Naples office [of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] had a computer assigned personally to them, and analytical capabilities were limited.")

Maehr's research for the commission, and the conservation strategy it spawned, made him especially attractive to developers engaged in destroying panther habitat. Immediately after leaving the commission, he signed on with a consulting firm.

One of his first assignments was Florida Gulf Coast University, to which real estate and agribusiness mogul Ben Hill Griffin III of Alico Inc. had arranged a donation of 760 acres, thereby vastly increasing the value of the company's 11,000 nearby acres. Eller helped draft a jeopardy opinion. But when Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) forwarded the FWS a letter from Griffin's lobbyist, and when Maehr wrote a letter of support for the developer, Eller's superiors rejected the draft, changing the opinion to "no jeopardy." Now, instead of panthers, the area supports two megamalls, a sports arena, the Ben Hill Griffin Parkway, and three sprawling residential communities with so many golf links that the institution-which specializes in, of all things, environmental education-has been nicknamed "Florida Golf Course University."

In 1999, Eller and his colleagues determined that a three-mile extension of Daniels Road into the Fort Myers airport would destroy or degrade 1,540 acres of panther habitat. The biologists agreed not to write a jeopardy opinion if Lee County would protect just 250 acres of habitat. The county refused to offer any compensation beyond the 69 acres the water management district had already required it to protect as wetlands mitigation. It then got senators Connie Mack (R-Fla.), Bob Graham and Slade Gorton (R-Wa.), plus Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), to write letters to then-FWS director Jamie Clark. Consulting for the county and using his discredited research, Maehr proclaimed that only the 69 acres of mitigation were necessary to offset the 1,540-acre loss.

Accordingly, the FWS reduced its compensation demands to 94 acres. "It would be great to save every piece of forest, marsh and prairie left in Southwest Florida; but the fact is that there has been no evidence of permanent panther occupation along much of the I-75 corridor in Lee County for perhaps 60 years," argues Maehr. "Just because there are those who want panthers there does not mean that they can live there. If we want the panther as a resident breeding component of central Lee County, it will take massive habitat restoration, removals of human infrastructure and the curtailment of human activities. Our panther conservation dollars can and should be spent more wisely."

But no one is suggesting removing human infrastructure; and parts of Lee County can and do provide permanent panther habitat, a fact borne out by ongoing FWS studies there, mandated by the Endangered Species Act. Because panthers require travel corridors and enormous hunting ranges, even habitat that doesn't show "evidence of permanent panther occupation" can be vital to their survival. Finally, other scientists insist that what the panther needs isn't "massive habitat restoration" so much as protection of and relocation into existing habitat.

By 2001 there were an estimated 78 panthers in Florida. In that year, misquoting the 1989 statement of one of its contracted biologists, the FWS stated that 50 cats were needed for a "minimum population," whatever that meant. The way the FWS saw it, this meant they had 28 extra animals. "No one who understood cats would ever say such a thing, especially when we only had 16 breeding females," Eller told me. "But I was ordered to write this into the biological opinion for a new terminal at the [Fort Myers] airport." Later the state's lead panther biologist, Darrell Land, informed me that the FWS's south Florida field supervisor, Jay Slack, has personally advanced this "absurd" argument to him. When I asked Slack about this, he said that he doesn't recall saying such a thing.

Floridians have come far since 1885, when they authorized a $5 bounty for each panther scalp. Now they support protection by purchasing Florida panther license plates. A professional hockey team has taken the name of this erstwhile varmint. The Florida Advisory Council on Environmental Education reports that 91 percent of people it polled want to "save the Florida panther from extinction."

Just about everyone inside and outside the state loves Florida panthers. Until, of course, they interfere with business; then they're suddenly friendless. Florida panthers aren't just smaller than their Western cousins; they're shyer. They don't attack humans, or at least they haven't in recorded history. Yet when a mother and her two kittens were spotted early in 2004 near Pinecrest, the business council of the Miccosukee Indians demanded their removal. As of late June, business council chairman Billy Cypress had written 10 voluminous screeds to the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even the governor, with copies to sundry politicians. "Our children are afraid to go outside and may become traumatized," he has proclaimed. The cats threaten nothing save, perhaps, business opportunities in the unlikely event that the FWS enforces the law. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the FWS have obediently tranquilized and relocated one of the kittens-about five months before it would have ceased depending on its mother. Eller, Richardson and Land are furious, and they agree there's little chance the kitten can survive on its own.

Now that the Florida panther is genetically healthy, the only thing it needs is habitat. Managers have long agreed that real recovery can't happen unless they establish three separate, viable populations in the animals' historic range. They had hoped that one of these populations would be in Arkansas. In that state, the FWS has identified four enormous blocks of prime habitat-one in the Ozark Mountains, one in the Ouachita Mountains, and two in the southern flatlands. But when panther managers approached the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, they were told to forget it. "Deer hunting is really big in Arkansas," explains Land.

Panther managers also had hoped to establish a separate, viable population in North Florida. So, as an experiment, they placed 19 sterilized Texas cats on the Osceola National Forest in 1988 and 1993. The public was outraged. A father held his daughter in front of TV cameras and talked about how he hoped to preserve her from being eaten. Deer hunters ranted to an insatiable press; and one, who had drenched himself with doe scent, reported that a panther had looked at him hungrily. Protesters held an anti-panther rally, formed an anti-panther organization called Not-in-My-Back-yard. At least two cats were shot; one died in a snare. Finally, the state evacuated the survivors, eventually turning them over to a Fort Lauderdale man who sold them across the country. Nine died in transit, and one wound up on a caged "hunting" preserve.

Still, the story of the Florida panther could yet have a happy ending. With public commitment and enlightened management that protects and utilizes remaining habitat, panthers could once again reach sustainable numbers. The vast majority of Americans favors recovery of this beautiful and elusive cat, this icon of the Southeast's remnant wild. But popularity doesn't count for much if you're a Florida panther who doesn't skate. For now, the problem is this: Most people who want to save the Florida panther want it done with someone else's money somewhere else.

Ted Williams is editor at large for Audubon Magazine and author of Wild Moments, released in October by Storey Publishing. This is an expanded version of a story he wrote for the October 2004 Audubon.

What You Can Do

Join Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge (www.floridapanther.org) and the Florida Panther Society (www.panthersociety.org/ panther.html). Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge will celebrate Save the Panther Day at Caribbean Gardens, Naples, March 12. Tax-deductible contributions to panther recovery may be sent to the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, Box 11010, Tallahassee, FL 32302. Write checks to "Florida Panther Fund."

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