Cat on a Collision Course

Though its numbers are growing, the Florida panther continues to lose habitat to development; will the nation's most endangered cat run out of room to roam?

04-01-2007 // Joe Dupree
Cat on a Collision Course - Magazine Layout - Florida Panther

IT'S A RARE THING to encounter a live Florida panther in the wild, even for workers in the country's only official refuge for the endangered cat. But on a morning not long ago, Larry Richardson found himself face-to-face with four of them: a mother and three kittens, sprawled lazily across a dirt trail as he rounded a corner in his pickup.

"The kittens were sleeping, all stacked together like cordwood, until they saw my truck," recalls Richardson, a biologist with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples, Florida. "The mother and two kittens ran, but a third kitten just stood there, watching me. We both got a good look at each other."

The moment is seared into Richardson's brain because of what happened next: Over the following months, the mother and two of the kittens were found dead, struck by cars or killed in turf fights with other panthers. Finally, the litter's only surviving kitten also died, hit by a vehicle as it crossed a busy two-lane blacktop near the sanctuary.

As it has so many times in the panther's recent history, hope for a new life for the animals had collided with stark reality in Southwest Florida, where the last remaining population of the cats exists in a kind of limbo between survival and extinction. More of the federally protected felines live in the region today than at any time since the 1950s, thanks to aggressive intervention that has led to record numbers of births and a tripling of the overall population. But lately, many more cats are dying, too, suggesting to some that the recovery may have already peaked. "We see high numbers of births and deaths in the same year," says Richardson, a 17-year employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The roadside deaths are only a symptom of a much larger problem: the steady loss of wild lands where North America's most endangered cat lives. Even as its numbers grow, the panther is losing territory to new housing projects spilling eastward from Southwest Florida's booming Paradise Coast and other types of development throughout the region. Wildlife experts say a population of at least 240 panthers is needed to ensure survivability over the long haul. But even at the current level of 100 cats, South Florida appears to be running out of room.

"The panther is being squeezed," says NWF Senior Counsel John Kostyack, who has successfully filed lawsuits to stop the loss of some of the cats' habitat. "And authorities have resisted calls to consider the cumulative impacts of the dozens of projects already approved and those in the pipeline."

Even lands that have been identified by scientists as "essential panther habitat" are disappearing at a rate of 1 percent a year. Federal and state agencies in charge of the panther's recovery have tried to slow the decline, but they have been unable or unwilling to stop it.

Cat on a Collision Course - Magazine Layout - Florida Panther with cubs

Conservation groups and some independent scientists say the agencies haven't done nearly enough. They accuse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--the agency chiefly responsible for enforcing the U.S. Endangered Species Act--of caving in to developers by approving new construction in areas vital to the panther's recovery. They also accuse the agency of using flawed science in determining which lands to protect, and how to compensate for habitat that is destroyed.

Agency officials last year acknowledged errors in the scientific underpinnings of several key panther policies. But Paul Souza, field supervisor for the service's Vero Beach, Florida, office, says the problems have been fixed. He says the agency today is focused on seeking practical solutions that protect the panther while acknowledging that urban sprawl can never be completely halted. "Rather than being defeatists, we're making a positive, serious attempt to save panther habitat," Souza says.

But will it be enough? "At some point the rising population trend will meet the declining carrying capacity," says Jane Comiskey, a University of Tennessee researcher who served on a federal science advisory team that evaluated conservation strategies for the panther. "While the biological prospects for recovery are encouraging, it's harder to see the cup as half full when the size of the cup keeps shrinking."

Epitome of Stealth
On the eastern edge of the panther sanctuary, an 11-foot-high chain link fence forms a barrier between the panthers and human passersby on Florida's Route 29. The fence isn't meant to protect people from the carnivores inside. It is meant to keep panthers from getting squashed by trucks. Inside the refuge, a staff of 18 federal scientists and workers busy themselves with projects also intended to keep live cats from becoming dead ones. Together with state wildlife officers, they track and capture panthers to check their health and use machetes to hack away cabbage palms to make it easier for the cats to find prey.

This is the panther's world, and it's an existence on life support. After coming within a whisker of extinction two decades ago, the cats today are aggressively managed in an effort to maximize their chances for survival. Roughly a third of them are fitted with radio collars so they can be monitored from the air. If a panther stops moving, wildlife officers on foot will check to see if it is dead or injured.

It wasn't always this way. The Florida panther, a subspecies of the cougar, thrived for thousands of years within a range that stretched from Texas to the Carolinas. But with the arrival of Europeans, the panther began a long retreat. By 1900, the only remaining cats lived in isolation in South Florida, where, by the 1950s, most of them were wiped out by bounty hunters.

Cat on a Collision Course - Magazine Layout - Florida Panther in pond

The panther officially gained federally protected status in 1973, yet its fortunes continued to slide. In the late 1980s, as few as 30 cats survived, and these were weakened by years of inbreeding.

The turnaround, when it happened, was dramatic. The most important single factor was a controversial decision to artificially enhance the panther's gene pool. Federal wildlife officials in 1995 imported eight breeding females from a different subspecies of cougar, a close relative from West Texas that interbred with the panther centuries ago when their territories overlapped. The arrival of these cougars set off a population mini-boom that tripled the number of cats in little more than a decade.

The panther also benefited from the creation of the refuge itself: 26,400 acres of federally owned palmetto and slash pine largely off-limits to humans. The sanctuary is the heart of a far bigger swath of protected space that includes parts of the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.

Inside the refuge, the tawny felines--which can weigh as much as 150 pounds and grow to as long as 7 feet from nose to tail--feast on deer, wild hogs and an occasional armadillo, with little fear of disturbance. Yet, even there they remain as invisible as ghosts. On a steamy morning in late summer, Richardson, the wildlife biologist, led a visitor on a trek through the sanctuary by canoe and swamp buggy, a tour that came with a guarantee that no actual panthers would be seen.

"They're reclusive, sneaky, the epitome of stealth," he says. "Sometimes the telemetry reading will show a panther less than 100 yards away, but you'll never see him. By the time you get there, he's gone."

If the sanctuary were big enough, the panther might simply recover on its own within the refuge's protective confines. The problem is, the territorial requirements of the cat far exceed the amount of government-owned land available to it. A single adult male panther will stake out a territory covering 200 square miles or more, and he will fight with any rival male that enters his domain.

A plan developed by four government agencies in 1993 identified more than 900,000 acres of private land as important panther habitat that should be preserved along with the federal sanctuaries. All together, the space set aside by the planners was deemed large enough to sustain 50 adult cats, the biggest population anyone at the time dared to hope for. Thirteen years later, there are more cats, but thousands fewer acres.

Using Skewed Data
In recent years, several new projects have been approved on, or adjacent to, lands that were designated essential habitat for panthers. In each case, the cats' proximity slowed the permitting process and forced the developer to agree to make adjustments to mitigate the impact on panthers. But not once in a decade has a proposed development been halted due to the risk of harming the animals. Indeed, some of the most controversial projects were allowed to go forward even though the government's own biologists saw potential problems for the cats.

"Agency officials see it as a balancing act, but for years they were clearly erring on the side of developers, even though their mandate was to err on the side of the species," says a former agency biologist who participated in the reviews. The biologist, who still holds a government job, spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

A frequent target for criticism has been the Fish and Wildlife Service's scientific methodology for deciding where and how development can occur. Until recently, the agency used what critics say was skewed data that made it easier to justify new construction projects. The data were supposed to show which kinds of terrain were most important for Florida panthers, using radio telemetry from the panther's electronic collars to chart their movement across the landscape. But there was a problem: No telemetry readings were collected during nighttime hours, when the cats do nearly all their hunting and roaming. The government's analysis also inexplicably omitted hundreds of telemetry readings that showed panthers using a variety of terrain types--not just forests, but also wetlands, prairie and even agricultural fields. The result was a badly distorted view of the panther as a creature that lived exclusively in large, heavily wooded areas, with little use for other kinds of terrain of interest to developers.

Cat on a Collision Course - Magazine Layout - Urban sprawl in Florida

In 2005, after an agency scientist successfully challenged the policy in a whistleblower lawsuit, the wildlife service formally agreed to toss out the old data and to use a more scientifically rigorous process for making decisions about preserving land and compensating for lost territory.

Souza, the federal wildlife supervisor, says his agency has recommitted itself to using the "best available science" in its decisions. While acknowledging that habitat continues to be lost, he says the agency uses its leverage to extract important concessions that will improve the lot of the panther in the long run. More lands--and better-quality lands--will be preserved elsewhere whenever prime panther habitat is sacrificed, he says. "Our job at the end of the day is to guard against jeopardy for the panther," says Souza.

But conservationists say they're hard-pressed to see that anything has changed. Laura Hartt, an NWF environmental policy specialist who recently helped revise the government's recovery plan for the cats, says the agency still hasn't allowed outsiders to examine the new formulas it uses for making decisions about panther habitat. "We've asked to see the scientific documents behind their methodology, but we can't get them," says Hartt. "As far as we can tell, there is no scientific underpinning to the mitigation, and no proof that it is helping."

Meanwhile, Hartt and others were incensed to discover that the agency has been allowing developers to write the first drafts of key documents known as "biological opinions," scientific studies that gauge the impact of each new construction project on panthers. Souza acknowledges the practice but says the developers are only "filling out templates" to reduce the paperwork burden for government scientists. Hartt, however, says the policy gives developers another opportunity to influence the process and gain advantage. "The developers have an interest in the outcome," she says. "It's a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse."

No one expects development to stop. But advocates worry that each loss for the cat builds on the momentum of previous losses and contributes to what NWF's Kostyack calls "baseline shift": Each step toward developing a new area opens the floodgates to still more development. For the panther, he says, it means more people, more traffic and more hazards for an endangered creature that is rebounding today but still far from safe.

"Can we make South Florida's panther population large enough to be truly healthy and sustainable?" asks Kostyack. "The answer is probably yes, but only if we stop doing what we're doing and actually start protecting endangered cats."

Journalist Joe Dupree is based in Northern Virginia.

Home to Rare Species

Located only 20 miles east of Naples in fast-developing Collier County, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for more than just the big cats. The 26,400-acre reserve also provides important habitat for a number of other endangered or threatened animals, such as the wood stork and eastern indigo snake, and some 40 species of rare native orchids, including the endangered yellow helmet.

A Long History of Protecting Panthers

When the National Park Service threatened to remove a female Florida panther and her kittens last year from the Big Cypress National Preserve, NWF initiated a public outreach campaign to convince authorities that the cats did not pose a threat to nearby residents. Protecting the female panther--one of only 14 to 17 reproducing females surviving in a population of about 80 cats--was "consistent with the Florida Panther Recovery Plan, which emphasizes using sound science to manage the animals," says NWF Environmental Policy Specialist Laura Hartt, who helped draft the recently revised recovery plan.

For more than two decades, NWF and its affiliate, the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), have been leading efforts in the Sunshine State to safeguard the habitat of the country's most endangered cat. "We have a unique partnership," says Nancy Payton, FWF's Southwest Florida field representative who coordinates the group's panther work. "Between our organizations' various field offices in Florida and Georgia and presence in Washington, D.C., we have the ability to weigh in on every issue relating to the cats at every level of government decision-making."

Since the late 1990s, when it won a legal case challenging inadequate panther management plans in Collier County, Florida, FWF has focused on implementing innovative strategies that provide economic incentives for private landowners. "We don't have the funds to purchase land, so we've looked for creative ways to reward landowners who take steps to protect cat habitat," says Payton.

Three years ago, NWF and FWF uncovered evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been ignoring scientific data about panther movements and automatically approving development applications in the animal's habitat. "The agency had been rubber-stamping projects scheduled in essential habitat for years," says NWF Senior Counsel John Kostyack.

The two groups also successfully filed lawsuits to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for construction plans--including a 5,200-acre open pit mine--and dredge-and-fill operations in the cats' habitat without conducting proper environmental assessments of the proposed projects.

To help reduce collisions between panthers and automobiles--a leading cause of mortality among the cats--the groups have helped secure wildlife underpasses and crossings on major highways in Southwest Florida. In addition, they are using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to help authorities identify areas essential to the survival and recovery of the cats.

For more information about efforts to protect panthers and other endangered Southeast species, visit www.nwf.org/wildlife and www.fwfonline.org.

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