Sunday, July 5, 2015

Florida Panther Population Rebounds

A mother Florida panther and her offspring in Florida's Collier County.

The majestic Florida panther, a subspecies of the puma whose population was down to twenty animals in the 1970s, has recently rebounded with almost 200 animals throughout southwest Florida. While this seems like excellent news for conservationists, some officials and other local people like ranchers and hunters feel that this figure might be enough. One particular example is seen in the case of Cliff Coleman, manager of the Black Boar Ranch, who stated that a female panther and her offspring are living on his property which is a hunting preserve near the town of LaBelle at the northern end of the animals' range. Mr. Coleman, like most ranchers and hunters living in the vicinity of the panther range, lose livestock and big game animals to the panthers which affects their businesses. However, the Black Boar Ranch had earlier signed an agreement with the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Nature Conservancy, allocating a part of the hunting preserve as habitat for the Florida panther. It attaches to the adjacent properties to the north and south, forming a corridor for the panthers. Florida state wildlife officials have evaluated that there are now approximately 180 Florida panthers living on millions of acres of private and public land in the state. But after decades of protecting the animal and working to extend its habitat, they want to ratify a new policy towards the panther. Under a federal recovery plan, the Florida panther cannot be taken off the endangered species list until three populations of 240 individuals or more are settled in Florida or other southeastern states. The policy made by state wildlife officials created outrage among environmental and animal welfare groups during a recent hearing held in the city of Sarasota. At the hearing, the Florida Wildlife Commission heard from dozens of attendees who argued against this new policy stating that it would cripple the state's promise to restore the panther. At the same time, hunters and ranchers complained about how the panthers have killed big game animals on hunting preserves and domestic livestock. In addition to being the subject of debate between conservationists and ranchers and hunters, the Florida panther is also part of another dispute concerning land use and the future of millions of underdeveloped acres in Florida. After several years of development along Florida's coasts, builders and senior citizens are progressively looking to establishing new communities in the state's interior. Among these potential locations include areas west of Lake Okeechobee, which is prime panther habitat. According to Glades County administrator Paul Carlisle, more than one third of the land is under conservation means of access. He further added that designating more land for the Florida panther would affect the county's economy. In his own words, Mr. Carlisle stated that there has to be development in order to be sustainable.
A Florida panther at the Black Boar Ranch.

The increase in the Florida panther population from twenty animals to nearly 200 is certainly a significant accomplishment. However, this does not mean that anybody involved in the conservation of this endangered species should change their perspective and adopt a new plan that would spark massive outrage among conservationists and animal welfare groups. The Florida Wildlife Commission stated its intention on adopting this new policy which would oppose efforts to designate a new panther population beyond southwest Florida and that the animals may have surpassed their habitat's carrying capacity in their current range. In addition, the commission aroused another controversy earlier this year by favoring a black bear hunt. Like in the case of Florida panthers, the commission stated that black bears must have reached the carrying capacity and it is now crucial to control their population. Both of these species once ranged throughout Florida and other parts of southeastern U.S before humans decimated their populations. The main purpose of the conservation of these two species is to ensure that they recolonize parts of their historical range where they once disappeared. The Florida panther, despite its name, once ranged throughout the southeastern U.S from Texas to North Carolina before being restricted to southern Florida. Similarly, the Florida black bear once inhabited southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Young Florida panthers in Collier County.

It is highly essential to continue the conservation efforts directed at increasing the numbers of these endangered species and identifying key hotspots inside Florida and other southeastern states where these animals once roamed. Also, in order to peacefully coexist with the panthers and black bears, conservation groups should establish wildlife corridors for these animals that pass through the peripheries of land areas designated for senior citizens. At the same time, builders should consider enhancing the security of senior citizens such that the panthers and bears are unable to infringe on their property. Similarly, ranchers should be provided with livestock guardian dogs to keep the animals away without having to resort to violent methods in protecting their livestock. The Florida panther is a keystone species and is known to be one of the few animals (if not one of the few animals) to play a crucial role in controlling the feral pig population in Florida. Without its existence, the feral pig population would continue to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of local people. Humans should also play their part in controlling the feral pig population, but it should never be done by hunting in preserves like the Black Boar Ranch. These establishments are known to house other exotic species like deer, antelopes, and wild sheep and goats that have been raised in captivity and lost their natural fear of humans. The hunts conducted in such facilities are a stark contrast to regular hunting expeditions which take place in an open wilderness, and are referred as "canned hunts." Some of the animals contained in these facilities are highly endangered or even labeled as "extinct in the wild." The Black Boar Ranch is known to house the Pere David's deer, which has been listed as extinct in the wild since October 2008. These facilities are of no help in the conservation of endangered species and species that are extinct in the wild and should be shut down and all the animals should be transferred to animal sanctuaries where they would be provided with adequate care in hopes of reintroducing them back to their native habitats.

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