FWC Drafts Position Paper for Panther Conservation

By Nick Wesdock

Florida panther The growing population of Florida panthers is becoming more of a threat to pets and livestock in the third most populous state in the U.S. The FWC seeks new guidelines for management of the apex predator that will protect people, property and panthers alike.
Image Credit Tim Donovan, FWC

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is looking to refocus its panther conservation program as rising populations are leading to increased human-panther conflict and the need for more progressive management tactics.

Criteria outlined in the federal recovery plan for Florida panthers have been deemed “unfeasible” by FWC, who says they will never be able to recover the species to the point of delisting under this plan. The new draft policy paper discussed at the FWC meeting in Sarasota last month offers changes in strategic priorities that would better allow the commission to cope with the challenges presented by successful panther conservation.

“I don’t really think it’s a radical change at all. I think what we’re trying to take the opportunity to do is just talk a little bit about where we’re at in panther conservation,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director for FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation and member of The Wildlife Society. “It emphasizes that we have a core panther population in South Florida which will remain our FWC focus in terms of conservation and management.”

According to the document, the panther population has exceeded carrying capacity of its range in Southwest Florida, yet no progress has been made in establishing populations north of the Caloosahatchee River. Provisions of the current recovery plan require establishment of two additional breeding populations in north-central Florida or other southeastern states. One point made clear in the draft statement is that FWC will not take the lead on the establishment of such populations. Successful expansion north of the river would require “that FWC has meaningful and practical management flexibility along with clear options on federal regulatory issues.” Until problems with private lands, regulatory burdens and human acceptance are resolved, any efforts to achieve the prescribed range expansion will be the responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Clearly, recovery of panthers as outlined in the plan involves multiple states. Yet we don’t see any activity or action on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service related to that,” Frohlich said.

Frohlich says that despite having the same goals for panther recovery and delisting, FWC is limited in many ways by FWS since the protected animal falls under federal jurisdiction. Both FWC and FWS would like to see changes to the federal recovery plan that would develop better benchmarks and more realistic measurements of success for sustainable panther populations. The two agencies are working together on a team to create future goals.

Emphasis on addressing human-panther conflict, depredation, restoring habitat and providing incentives to private landowners across the panthers’ present range are listed as some of the FWC’s other top priorities for panther conservation moving forward. Along with the refocused management comes a shift in research activities and technology, such as accelerated transition to satellite telemetry and the use of trail cameras, though the document doesn’t flesh out details of these changes.

“We’re not proposing to remove the panther from the endangered species list,” Frohlich said. “We do want to work on new criteria but it’s important to get out some of the misinformation which was like ‘FWC thinks panther needs to come off the list.’ That’s just not true.”

Nick WesdockNick Wesdock is The Wildlife Society’s Membership and Conferences Coordinator. You can follow him on Twitter at @nick_wesdock.

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