The Panther You Want

Photograph by David Shindle for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

A FEW DAYS before Halloween 2015, Murray Johnston went out after dark to check the animals on his seven-acre property near Naples, Florida. He spotted his two tiny miniature horses, Derby and Shorty, and his guard llama, Merlin, but found only two of his five goats. “I immediately knew there was something wrong, because they almost always stay together,” Johnston told me, when I visited him earlier this year. He had lost a goat and a peacock to bobcats, and as he and his wife, Nicole, crept through the big back pasture, the flashlight caught two glowing eyes in a cabbage palm. Then two more sets of eyes and a long, long tail. Florida panthers.

“We thought, Whoa! There’s three panthers right there in front of us! We were really scared. We just weren’t sure if panthers attack humans or not,” he said.

There are no verified accounts of any Florida panther ever attacking a human, but of course this cat, Puma concolor coryi, is a subspecies of the mountain lion (P. c. concolor), which has attacked and killed a number of people in the West—trail runners in particular. An adult cat can weigh up to 150 pounds, and the Johnstons have a toddler son who likes to run around the yard. Back in the house, they called the cops, and the cops called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Because the Florida panther is a critically endangered species, the biologist sent by the FWC did not advocate killing the cats, trapping the cats, or moving the cats away from pets and toddlers. Instead, he put the Johnstons in touch with Lisa Östberg, the coexistence coordinator with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife—yes, “coexistence coordinator” is a job title—who within days helped the Johnstons build a ten-by-twenty-foot permanent enclosure. It’s made of chain link fence, with a roof, to which the goats and horses and llama can retire every night.

“They love that enclosure so much! They go in there all day long!” Johnston said. “I think they feel very safe in there.”

Merlin the llama, by the way, was in a separate pen with the horses when the goats were attacked, and so couldn’t defend them. He spent weeks afterward staring into the bush. (Llamas don’t blink, you know.)

Östberg said that the Johnstons’ pen was one of three they put up in the county that week, though they’ve only built sixteen total, including a modification to a barn, since early 2014. Some of the Johnstons’ friends have called about it, a few have come to see it, but others are doubtful.

Still,Östberg was hopeful that the idea will catch on. “If we can keep peoples’ animals safe,” she said, “then maybe they won’t have a reason to hate panthers.”

There are only 100 to 180 Florida panthers in the wild today, though that’s an increase from the 20 to 30 that were alive in the 1990s. (By comparison, there are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in California.) To get the numbers up to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s target of three populations of 240 cats each, the panther population will need to expand northward into neighboring states.

A commitment to living with a large predator, if that commitment is real, means that everyone learns to live with its shadow in his or her mind. And that requires huge changes and hard work. In 2008, a male panther from south Florida’s core reproducing population walked six hundred miles into Troup County, Georgia, where it was killed by a hunter. There hadn’t been a confirmed Florida panther sighting in Georgia since one was killed in the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the Georgia-Florida border, in 1925. They are extinct in Georgia, just as they are in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. The hunter was fined $2,000, but a lot of folks there considered him a hero.

“We have to help them want to have panthers on their property,” said Kevin Godsea, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The cats don’t stay in the refuge, nor are they meant to (it’s not an animal park): an estimated twelve different panthers currently use its twenty-six thousand acres, but the species has to disperse to recover. A female needs a range of about seventy-five to ninety square miles, and a male up to two hundred square miles (the ranges can overlap). So if these animals are going to survive, they’re going to end up in the yard. And way beyond.

***

PUMA CONCOLOR is called the mountain lion, cougar, painter, catamount, mountain screamer, ghost cat, and thirty-odd other names, but scientists now refer to them generally as pumas. They are one of the most widely distributed wild mammals in North America—and they’re found from the Yukon to the southern Andes, though officially considered extirpated from the US everywhere east of the Mississippi River. I know, I know: in the last ten years, wildlife agencies have confirmed puma sightings in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and one was shot in Chicago, but there are no confirmed breeding populations. (My own mother was face-to-face with a puma in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in 2012, and she’s pretty good with the identification of wildlife.) Despite the fact that the eastern cougar has been declared extinct, pumas of some kind have been seen anecdotally in just about every eastern state—and in Canada the cats are confirmed to range nearly coast to coast. As a result, a discussion has been reignited among biologists about what, exactly, constitutes a distinct cat species or population.

The Johnston encounter followed a protocol written into the federally designed Interagency Florida Panther Response Plan: When you call the county, a biologist (usually from the state FWC) will be dispatched instead of law enforcement. The idea is to reduce the expectation that they’re going to kill the cat. If you’ve lost livestock and the biologist determines your animal was killed by a panther—not by a bear, a bobcat, a coyote, an alligator, a crocodile (there are some), a python, feral dogs, or any number of other hungry swamp things—then this process starts, described here in the words of the Fish and Wildlife Service:

• Provide informational material.

• Offer recommendations regarding improvements to domestic pet/livestock husbandry (i.e., building enclosures, guard animals).

• Offer recommendations to the affected landowner and residents on landscape modifications to reduce attractiveness to panthers and prey species.

• Remove any panther prey caches and cease all feeding of wildlife (such as deer and hogs).

• Apply aversive conditioning techniques (hazing, such as shooting a cat with a paintball) when appropriate.

• Increase law enforcement patrols and monitoring in the area.

Notice that this list doesn’t include moving the cat. That can happen if a panther’s behavior threatens its own survival, or if its behavior is a safety risk. The response plan classifies depredation events and human-panther interactions differently; human run-ins with cats are categorized according to five types: as a “sighting,” “encounter” (a non-threatening meeting), “incident” (possibly threatening), “threat” (aggressive behavior), or a full-out “attack.” In the case of either a threat or an attack, these actions are part of the response plan:

• Immediate, permanent removal of the offending panther from the wild.

• Close the area where the threat occured until the panther has been removed

You don’t need a confirmed panther attack to call Defenders of Wildlife, though. Even if you are just worried about panthers, Defenders of Wildlife will deliver a predator-proof enclosure, provide volunteers to help put it up, and pay for up to half of its cost. Other inexpensive strategies for discouraging predators include systems such as Foxlights, an Australian innovation that, in action, looks like a human sweeping the pasture with a flashlight; motion detectors that trigger loud music; and guard animals, such as llamas and donkeys, which have long been used to protect sheep from coyotes.

“Whenever the goats hear something now out back, they just hustle right into that pen and Izzy the donkey goes in behind them and stands at the door,” said Brad Knoll, one of the Johnstons’ neighbors, who put in a pen after losing two goats in 2015. “I don’t even have to close the gate. Izzy guards it.”

(Of course, nothing is flawless: FWC panther biologist Mark Lotz told me that, unfortunately, they’ve also had three donkeys taken by panthers in Florida.)

“We’ve got these, they’re called Nite Eyes, and it’s a flashing red LED light, and it’s supposed to deter the panthers and the raccoons and even owls and eagles,” said Tom and Geri Pillod, owners of a seventeen-and-a-half-acre farm near Immokalee, Florida, who lost two calves to panthers in 2015. The solar-powered devices, which look like the eyes of a big predator in the darkness, now ring their chicken pen, and they’re trying them out in the pasture, too.

Ranchers can also get paid cash for depredations. Right now, if you have under three hundred head of cattle, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida will pay damages of up to $599 for panther kills confirmed by a biologist. The Pillods, who currently have only three cows, were compensated by this program. For large-scale ranchers with over three hundred head, the USDA offers a program funded under the Farm Bill that pays about 75 percent of the value of animals lost to depredations.

These programs, though, are far from perfect. Panthers usually cache their prey in cabbage palms or saw palmetto, making them hard to find. Without the carcass, a rancher doesn’t get paid.

“For every one calf that we find and that is verified, we’re probably losing at least five more,” said Liesa Priddy, a commissioner with the FWC whose 9,300-acre ranch lies just east and north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. “A compensation program that’s based on verification of individually killed animals is almost impossible for a commercial operation.”

Tom Pillod said that, though grateful for the money, he wants another solution. “We’re animal people; that’s why we live out here,” he told me. “I’m not against the panther, I just don’t want to lose my calves.”

In the works is a new federal program that would pay landowners for the delivery of ecosystem services. Meaning that if, in the course of raising cattle or lemon groves, you also maintain some beautiful panther habitat where they can hunt deer and chase hogs, you will be paid on a per-acre basis to help offset any livestock losses and keep the big housing developments from looking like an attractive alternative.

“How do we incentivize that work?” asked Godsea. “Can we offer them some kind of payment to help them with management issues, whether it’s invasive species or prescribed burning? We’re developing those scenarios now. And there are probably a lot of other things that we haven’t quite gotten off the starting block, whether that’s safe-harbor agreements or other types of partnership agreements that might be conducive to keeping both panthers and people on the landscape.”

***

NOT LONG AFTER I first spoke with Liesa Priddy, she invited me to her ranch to see how she has accommodated the growth in the panther population. Her property, less than forty miles east of downtown Naples, comprises vast swaths of grassy improved pasture, open and unimproved rangelands, pine flatwoods, swamp, and hardwood hammocks. It’s a panther paradise.

Because her property lies almost adjacent to the Panther Refuge, everyone who wants the cats to succeed needs Priddy to succeed. Priddy is a third-generation rancher who wants to go on ranching. To that end, she’s participating in the recovery of the panther as a commissioner with the FWC, has hosted panther-depredation studies on her property, and is generally pro-panther. But she wants to make sure that landowners like her stay at the center of the process, and that panthers don’t eat too many of her calves.

Priddy said she’s losing at least 10 percent of her calves to panthers, and calves are how she pays her bills. This is double the loss rate found by a University of Florida study. Her hunting leases have also suffered, as a feral hog hasn’t been seen on her property in years. The white-tailed deer population is stable, but her ranch hands see a panther now “at least once a week,” she said. Her grandfather bought the ranch in the 1940s when there weren’t any cats. Now, with the refuge in her backyard, she’s feeling overrun.

The biologists on the refuge tell me about the plight of Priddy and other ranchers and landowners before I even ask. They acknowledge that the core reproducing population of panthers is “bursting at the seams,” as Godsea said, and that open space on ranches like hers is the only way the cats have a chance.

Unfortunately for the panthers, it’s exactly this kind of ranch that is now being carved up into housing developments. From 1995 to 2004, as the panther population grew from maybe thirty to somewhere around one hundred cats, the human population of Florida jumped from 15 million to 18 million. There was a slowdown around the recession of 2008, but now the boom has resumed, and most of the snowbirds and retirees and new residents want nothing more than warm weather and nifty shops and someone to take the alligator off the putting green. And who can blame them? This is the luxurious promise for which they trade their life savings.

Amber Crooks, a natural resource specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, showed me how that very ordinary desire threatens the panther’s current toehold on existence.

“This is Ave Maria,” she said, pointing on the map to a new, controversial, five-thousand-acre town complete with a university, which stands smack in the middle of the western Everglades. It’s about ten miles north of the Panther Refuge, right in the panther’s primary recovery zone. There are forty-five thousand acres of proposals for similar planned communities in rural Collier County alone.

“What this is, the long and short of it, is a plan to replicate Ave Maria nine more times in what is now a very rural area,” Crooks added. There are additional plans in neighboring Hendry and Lee counties. Florida’s interior is filling with sprawl.

Ordinarily, this is where injunctions would start flying and nice grandparents in microfleece would chain themselves to bulldozers. Instead, something new happened: landowners (mostly) put their fear aside and started talking to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), to the FWC, and to environmentalists—and they all waded into the backbreaking work of actual conservation together.

One product of this work is the map Crooks showed me: the Eastern Collier Habitat Conservation Plan, which is a fifty-year master plan for development. It’s risky for both developers and conservationists. Developers and their armies of lawyers, for instance, could probably cram individual projects past the Endangered Species Act one at a time without triggering a “jeopardy” finding, indicating a threat to Florida’s panthers. By combining the development proposals into one process, they trade efficiency for the reality that the cumulative whole might indeed put the cat in jeopardy and might get cut back.

Similarly, conservationists have to hold their noses, because that map is hideous. Who wants to see that much of rural Florida paved over? And even if the plan leaves skinny green corridors for panthers to make their way northward, another map produced by Crooks—which she said will “scare the bejesus out of you”—shows a web of new proposed roads entangling the Everglades, especially out by Immokalee, including new six-lane highways.

Even though lots of Florida roads have underpasses built specifically as panther crossings, most Florida panthers die by getting hit by cars: thirty of them in 2015, and twenty-six out of the thirty-four cats found dead so far in 2016. A number of those cats have died on Corkscrew Road, which passes through massive citrus orchards a half-hour northeast of Naples; as farms are converted to housing developments and fountains and Starbucks, the traffic on that one road is projected to increase by many times its current amount.

***

FLORIDA’S predator-conservation model is not yet fully formed, but it might be the one that translates best to a world increasingly full of humans. Consider the dozen pumas in my backyard in Los Angeles, trapped in a corner of the Santa Monica Mountains and genetically isolated, just like the Florida cats are. Or the wolves that trot into towns in northern Minnesota. Or bears and bobcats just about everywhere. Florida, with its unchecked population growth, provides an ideal laboratory for learning what it’ll take to keep these animals safe.

But they are not inventing the process from scratch. When the team from Florida searched the country for other public-private cooperative conservation models, they found that the best one had a river running through it: the Blackfoot Challenge, in Montana.

“That is the gold standard,” said Godsea at the Panther Refuge. “It deals with a lot of habitat protection, and also some significant carnivore issues with grizzly bears, in how those landowners out West have been able to work with the federal government.

“It can’t be top-down,” he added. “It can’t be from government only. Those landowners need to be at the table and help solve some of these social-tolerance issues.”

The Blackfoot Challenge began in the early 1970s, when ranchers and river lovers acknowledged a lack of fish in the beleaguered Blackfoot River in western Montana (the legendary trout waters at the heart of Norman Maclean’s epic novella, A River Runs Through It). But the group had no data to back their claim, so in the 1980s they started a chapter of Trout Unlimited and helped launch some of the first biological studies on the river. This effort wasn’t spearheaded by the USFWS, the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or any other agency that had long drawn local ire; the locals themselves did it, and had to face what they found: all tributaries that made up the watershed were affected by problems resulting from timber cutting, grazing and farming, the legacy of mining, interactions among seven different communities, hunting and fishing issues, and public access to waters—the list went on and on. So a series of community meetings began that, in 1993, were formalized as the Blackfoot Challenge.

“The Blackfoot Challenge is not about imposing solutions,” said the organization’s chairman, Jim Stone, a third-generation rancher and owner of a cow-calf operation in Ovando, Montana, called Rolling Stone Ranch. “We’re that communication bridge that allows the communities to form their own opinions and help build working plans with our partners. We just sat down, put our egos aside, and went to work.”

The Challenge is simply a coordinating framework in the form of a monthly meeting, the third Wednesday of every month, but it’s been going on for twenty years now. The process takes all day, and it includes every possible stakeholder from ranchers to city officials, and outfitters to NGOs, agencies to Native-American tribes and out-of-state trout lovers. Stone said that it was hard for farmers to overcome their traditional stoicism and start talking, and that in order to encourage their participation the Challenge addresses the interests of both animals and people. After all, if we end up saving the endangered bull trout and the grizzly and at the same time schools close and ranchers can’t make a living, we’ve failed.

Stone said that the group is not focused on preservation, but decades of talks have resulted naturally in the conservation of about 75 percent of the Blackfoot’s 1.5-million-acre watershed—a bunch of it purchased from a private timber company—and another 231,000 acres being set aside as working lands. They figured out water-quality problems, dropped grizzly bear encounters by 94 percent while letting the bears and wolves reinhabit their former range, and kept jobs alive.

Rancher Dave Mannix brought to the Challenge his 80/20 rule: focus on the 80 percent of an issue that everyone can agree on, then build the credibility and trust that allows you to crack the 20 percent on which you disagree. It takes years.

“You concentrate on that 80 percent,” said Stone. “You be respectful. You have everybody at the table. It’s not fun. It’s a brutal process. It’s not about cows and it’s not about open space: it’s about this human ability to get along, and when you see that work, it’s really a special thing.”

Today, the Blackfoot Challenge has fourteen employees and a $1.5 million budget. In 2006, the organization received a grant from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to see if this model could be deployed across the country. The result was a new national dispersal effort called the Partners for Conservation. The group’s 2016 annual gathering was held in October in Florida.

***

IT TOOK YEARS for the Blackfoot Challenge to develop the trust among its constituents that it needed to work, and in Florida there’s a big public-education hurdle involved. It’s hard to get people to accept panthers and to accept help in living with them. Lisa Östberg sometimes canvasses the suburbs of Naples for days, just handing out information on panthers and bears, and gets upbraided by residents who don’t want her meddling.

“It took a long time for homeowners to feel comfortable contacting someone and letting them come see their property. All the while they’re thinking, ‘Oh, there’s an endangered species on my property, what will happen?’” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “People who live in those really remote areas live out there precisely because they don’t want anyone coming around.”

And then there are the throngs of new arrivals who come to Florida without a clue that panthers even exist. A lot of them show up at the Naples Zoo, especially on Free Saturdays—as many as five thousand in a day. There they meet one of the most important ambassadors for panthers: a good-sized male cat named Uno.

Because Florida panthers are so rare, there are hardly any in zoos. Uno was found on the road out near Immokalee in 2014, down to about sixty pounds and struggling to survive. He had been shot in the face and the rear with buckshot and is functionally blind; one eye is milky blue and the other red. He was patient number one at Tampa’s new animal hospital (thus, “Uno”) and is now over 140 pounds. He cruises his fine habitat at the Naples Zoo with remarkable ease, plays with a ball, and even makes a meal of the occasional squirrel or possum that gets too cocky.

I visited Tim Tetzlaff, director of conservation at the zoo, and we watched Uno work his profound magic: families walked up to the enclosure, made contact with Uno, then someone in their group read his story on the interpretive graphics. They learned that he grew up in this area (in fact, panthers have come very near the zoo grounds), and that unlike the Malayan tigers or the cheetahs in nearby enclosures, his species is out there now, wild, in the Everglades. That he’s fierce and that he could show up in their backyard. You could see the shadow of the cat enter their minds.

“You have to educate people on both fronts,” Tetzlaff said. “We don’t want panthers to go away, because there are real ecosystem benefits to having predators around. On the other side, people who are in favor of panther conservation need to understand the realities of managing these cats. That might mean that a biologist with some rubber pellets or a beanbag gun has to teach these animals that it’s not a good thing to be this close to people.”

And yet being close to people is pretty much a requirement should Florida panthers have a future.

“The core message is: In the long run, the best thing for people and the best thing for wildlife will be the same,” he added. “We’re called to love our fellow man, and we’re called to be good stewards. So find a way to work together—either legislatively, through compensation, through whatever kind of programs—so that you want to have panthers on your property.”

We watched a middle-aged dad call out to his wandering brood, “Hey, this guy was shot!” The kids gathered around him and talked about Uno.

“The best chance you have, when you have two people who are not in agreement, is let them sit down and talk,” Tetzlaff said. “Not in sound bites, but in long conversations with nuance and compromise. That’s when you can make some change.”

This article was made possible through the support of the Summerlee Foundation.

Dean Kuipers is the author of Burning Rainbow Farm and Operation Bite Back. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Outside, and other publications.

Comments

  1. It’s not the strongest,fastest or even the elusive species that survive.it’s the species that can adapt to their surroundings.

  2. It’s not the strongest,fastest or even the elusive species that survive.it’s the species that can adapt to their ever changing surroundings.

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