Keep an eye on the folks in charge of ‘protecting’ Florida’s panthers

Better watch out: Fish and Wildlife Service reviewing ‘endangered’ label

December 23, 2021 7:00 am

Florida panthers mating at Babcock Ranch. Credit: FWC

A lot of families this time of year deploy an Elf on a Shelf doll to (supposedly) keep an eye on their kids’ behavior. Better shape up or that weird doll will report you to the Big Guy!

We never did the Elf thing, which seemed a little creepy. Instead, when our kids were little, my wife and I employed what we called “the Santa Sock Monkey,” who wore Santa’s hat and a maniacal grin.

Every night, after the kids were in bed, we’d move the Santa Sock Monkey to a different observation point. He’d be peeking over the sofa, dangling from a curtain rod, popping out of one of the stockings. Our children had fun every morning spotting the Santa Sock Monkey’s latest reconnaissance point.

These days our kids are too old to be excited about the Santa Sock Monkey. Rather than leaving him tucked in a drawer, though, I wish we could dispatch him to a few other places to keep an eye on people who might be behaving badly.

Vero Beach, for instance.

That’s where the South Florida office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is headquartered. It also seems to be the source of some serious mischief.

There was a story published last week that said that federal agency is plotting to take our state animal, the Florida panther, off the endangered list.

Rather than galloping in with a ton of fanfare, the announcement tiptoed in very quietly. It was contained in the Biden administration’s “unified agenda,” a plan updated every six months and provided to the White House from various agencies.

Buried in the bureaucratic minutiae was a short statement that the agency would be considering changes to the status of the panther, as well as the Key deer and the whooping crane. All three of those animals have been on the federal endangered list ever since the first one was issued in 1967, even before passage of the Endangered Species Act.

The Key deer, which lives on an island amid a rising sea, is endangered by climate change and seems unlikely to lose its current status. Ditto the whooping crane, which has gone from a mere 15 birds to around 600, which is still not much. The panther is another story.

The fine print, first highlighted by an environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity, says: “This proposed rule would reassess the listing status of the Florida panther … . The status determination will be based on the best available information as of the time of publication. Based on the assessment, FWS may propose to revise the status or taxonomy of the listed entity.”

My first thought was, “WTF!” — which, as we all know, stands for “Welcome to Florida!”

The sleek, elusive panther has been the very definition of “endangered” for decades. In the mid-1990s, when there were fewer than 30 left, and those 30 or so full of genetic defects from inbreeding, they seemed destined for extinction.

Think about how embarrassing that would have been if Florida’s state animal had vanished from the earth. That’s like designating a Lamborghini as the governor’s official state sports car and having it stolen.

Fortunately, a desperate experiment succeeded in quashing the genetic defects and reeling the panthers back from the brink. Eight female Texas cougars were turned loose to breed with the remaining male panthers and five succeeded. A quarter century later, we have around 200 cats slinking through the dwindling number of sloughs and forests remaining in Southwest Florida.

The state’s own wildlife agency this week announced that a trail camera had captured photos of a pair of healthy panthers mating (NSFW! HOT CAT ON CAT ACTION!) near Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County. The pair were north of the Caloosahatchee River, long thought to be a barrier penning panthers in from any northward movement, but now apparently as permeable as a slice of Swiss cheese.

In other words, they’re doing better these days, although you may not be able to tell it from the grimaces visible on the panthers’ faces in those X-rated photos.

But it’s not as if they’ve become so common that panthers are showing up in everyone’s backyard on a regular basis (which is probably a good thing, given how many folks in Florida own guns).

We’re not even close to the requirements of the feds’ own recovery plan for the panther. The plan dictates that they can only be removed from the endangered list if there are three separate populations of panthers of 240 individuals each — 720 total.

How, then, could the Fish and Wildlife Service suddenly wave a magic wand and declare them no longer worthy of the endangered list?

Through changing their scientific name.

Name that cat!

Two centuries ago, panthers ranged across the whole American South, from the red clay hills of Georgia to the dusty plains of Texas. They were part of the puma family, an amazingly adaptable species of cats found on both the North and South American continents, inhabiting lands from Canada to Argentina.

They didn’t appear as the same cat everywhere, but they were similar to each other, recognizable as a set of cousins. They carried differing names: panthers, pumas, mountain lions, cougars, catamounts. (I love that last one — we don’t use it enough these days, unlike “cougar.”)

No matter the name of the various subspecies, they have mostly been on their way out. West of the Mississippi, the big cats still survive, but in only sixteen states. East of the Mississippi, they remain in only one — ours. The rest have been killed off.

As the only big cats remaining on this side of the country, the panthers were a shoo-in for inclusion on the endangered list. They have, to some extent, benefited from that legal protection, which discourages (but hasn’t stopped) destruction of their habitat as well as discouraging (but not stopping) their killing by hunters. Killing by car and truck, however, continues to take a toll, so to speak.

Federal rules require the agency to review the status of each endangered or threatened species every five years. In 2017, early in the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was time for that routine review for panthers — except it wouldn’t be routine at all.

“One of the most interesting things we’re going to review is the taxonomy,” the head of the agency’s Vero Beach office, Larry Williams, told me then.

Wait, you may be saying, what the heck is “taxonomy”? Does it involving taxing people? Or the study of taxis? Or binge-watching every episode of that Judd Hirsch-Danny DeVito TV show “Taxi”?

Well no. Taxonomy is the branch of science that’s concerned with classification — in other words, naming things the way the Bible says Adam did in the Garden of Eden.

Panthers are currently classified as “Puma concolor coryii,” a name that means they are pumas, they are all one color (tan) and they are the ones found in Florida and first described by a wealthy playboy scientist named Charles Cory. (The guy was like a 19th century Tony Stark — he hunted panthers from a houseboat so big it had a full kitchen and a grand piano.)

What Williams was referring to was a 2000 study by a team of scientists led by Melanie Culver of the U.S. Geological Survey. Culver is a geneticist and has worked on such experiments as (and this is absolutely not made up) “Feasibility of Extracting Florida Panther DNA from Scats” (ew!).

The 2000 study by Culver and Co. reported that, genetically speaking, all the pumas in North America are one species, period. They aren’t cousins. They’re siblings.

If true, that could be bad news for the panthers.

If the 200 Florida panthers are genetically identical to the thousands of pumas in those 16 Western states, then they might not qualify as endangered any more. Or, as rancher, would-be developer, and former Florida wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy commented on this week’s wildlife commission Facebook post about the trail cam photos of the mating panthers: “Just a puma that happens to be in FL.”

In other words, they’re nothing special, so stop protecting their habitat and their hides. Crank up the bulldozers and start knocking down all the trees they climb! And load the AR-15s and let’s bag a few, the way God intended!

If this is the way the wildlife agency is headed, expect a big backlash from panther  fans. When Williams first announced the five-year review, he asked for public comment. More than 20,000 people wrote in — scientists, politicians, and a North Florida elementary school class that contributed paintings and drawings explaining how cool those cats are.

Stop monkeying around

The Culver assessment is far from unanimous. A state biologist told me that their own DNA studies showed that panthers have differences from the other pumas. Culver herself told me she thought panthers should still be listed as endangered — but based on their isolated location, not on their distinctive genetic qualities.

When I contacted Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood last week about what was going on, he basically said they are leaning toward Culver’s complicated solution. That would require stripping off their endangered label, then putting it back on.

“Any rulemaking with respect to the Florida panther, if determined to be appropriate, will be limited to a revision of entity from subspecies to a DPS,” he said. Those are the initials for “Distinct Population Segment,” which is the bureaucratic term for “pumas that happen to be in Florida.”

Taking them completely off the endangered list “is not a priority for the species,” Underwood said.

That’s good news, I suppose — except I am not sure I trust the federal agency not to screw this up somehow.

This is, after all, the agency that said manatees were doing so well that they could be taken down from “endangered” to merely “threatened,” and everything would be fiiiiiiiine. They hadn’t met their recovery plan goals, and thousands of people — including scientists — cautioned the agency not to take that step, but they did it anyway.

“While it is not out of the woods, we believe the manatee is no longer on the brink of extinction,” Williams said then.

Now, of course, we’re dealing with a mass die-off of manatees that’s topped 1,000 so far this year and may be worse in 2022.

A coalition of environmental groups this week notified the Environmental Protection Agency that they plan to sue because the EPA failed to do anything about halting the pollution going into various waterways, stimulating toxic algae blooms and killing the seagrass the manatees eat. In other words, the federal government failed to protect their habitat from human alteration.

Similarly, the wildlife service has done a poor job of protecting the panthers’ Florida habitat. The agency has not opposed any development in panther habitat since 1993, instead approving construction, mining, and other uses for more than 40,000 acres of it. Former agency employees told me a decade ago that every time they tried to block something, “we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster.”

Despite Underwood’s promise the agency won’t be giving the OK to open fire on the next Florida panther you see, I just wish I could be sure. That’s why I want the Santa Sock Monkey there to watch them.

It could be hiding out in their offices, peeking over the windowsill or hiding in a trash can, keeping an eye out for federal employees ducking their responsibility and letting developers win every single round.

After all, who better than a pretend chimp to report on whether they’re pretending to be protective while monkeying around with the fate of our state animal?

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.