Hunters and environmentalists are clashing over a plan that would open the last unhunted section of Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades to hunting. Opponents argue that a man-made reduction in the white-tailed deer population would reduce a primary food source for the region's dwindling population of Florida panthers. At a meeting last week, Matt Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association and others cited a population of around 100 animals.
The hunters shot back. "Hunting has never caused the extinction of an animal," said Rich Gotshall of Safari Club International, who wore a drab-colored vest. "When the antis see the words 'No Hunting,' they are going to jump on that even though it's an illegal process," said Lyle McCandless, who later told the Pulp that the government intentionally hides the true, healthy population of panthers "on a regular basis, in an effort to restrict us."
Well, it turns out the panther population is higher than that previously quoted 100 figure... by as much as 60 percent. So there could be 160 panthers in Florida.
That's almost... well... OK, no, it's still shockingly low, leaving the species severely endangered. And where do we get these newfangled numbers? A government agency, of course, but one run by the state: the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Hunters seem to vastly prefer that local body to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the commission includes Ron Bergeron -- the local developer and self-fashioned cowboy who made a star appearance at the meeting and was greeted warmly by the hunters. Personally, Bergeron advocated for a hunting plan in the area that includes a quota.
"Panthers are very difficult to count, but there is no question that conservation efforts have reversed the downward spiral toward extinction of this imperiled species," said Kipp Frohlich, head of the Imperiled Species Management Section at the FWC, in a news release.
In the 1970s, the commission says, scientists believed the population to be as low as 20 panthers due to overcrowding and hunting. The genetic mix and population were recharged with the introduction of lady pumas from East Texas, making the lonely Florida males come out of their hiding places in the swamp in a mix of cracker and cowgirl that would make Ronnie Bergeron proud.
Speaking of cows, southwestern Florida's cattle ranchers aren't too excited about the slight uptick in the panther population. The big cats have been known to chew on errant cattle who wander into their path on unguarded ranch land. Now the state and federal governments are proposing a $25,000 fund to compensate ranchers who lose animals to panthers. We're wondering about the claims process on that one -- do they need to show bite marks?
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Panthers, of course, wouldn't be so hungry for livestock if their natural prey, like deer, were in larger supply. With humans likely to start competing for deer in the entire Big Cypress preserve, the problem is likely to get even more difficult.