By Jeremy Cox
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Pamela Mesce shouted and shook her screen door in vain as a male Florida panther walked into the late-afternoon shadows with her 11-year-old house cat in his jaws.
“It was the most horrific thing in my 51 years I’ve ever seen,” said Mesce, who lives in Copeland on the edge of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.
“He just looked at me with my cat’s head in his mouth ... and he just walked (away) like he was moseying through.”
A state wildlife biologist confirmed Tuesday’s attack after hearing Mesce’s story and snapping pictures of slash marks in her screen door and a paw print in the muck nearby.
Copeland, an easily missed dot on Collier County’s map, was established long before the Endangered Species Act and modern zoning regulations took effect. But even existing development rules might not be enough in coming years to protect people from panthers and vice versa, wildlife biologists say.
“I’d rather prevent these things from happening rather than reacting to them,” said Darrell Land, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist who has tracked panthers for years.
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A county advisory committee meeting today could set in motion a possible solution to the county’s panther problem. The committee is exploring the idea of a Habitat Conservation Plan, which until now has focused almost exclusively on a single species, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
If county commissioners approve the plan, it would carve up the county into areas where developers could harm or kill protected species and areas that will be set aside in return. Supporters say the habitat plan would streamline development approvals in return for regional conservation, replacing a system based on individual project reviews that often resulted in piecemeal conservation.
But critics call habitat plans “a license to kill.”
That was the title of a 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer series that found such plans have shortcomings that shift the balance of power in favor of developers over endangered species. Only 27 percent of the plans reviewed by the newspaper included stipulations to ensure that proposed mitigation efforts would benefit the animals in question.
“I think if it’s abused, it is a harm (to wildlife),” said Brad Cornell of the Collier Audubon Society. “Can you craft a plan that truly does address the wildlife concerns?”
Despite such questions, Cornell said the county “can’t do this (plan) too soon. ... The alternative is the status quo, which we know is harming these species.”
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Between 1986 and 1996, panther habitat disappeared at a rate of about 1 percent a year, according to a state Fish and Wildlife analysis. That rate has probably tripled since then, researchers say.
Most of that habitat lies in eastern Collier’s swamps, piney woods and farms. Panthers once rambled as far north as Arkansas, but hunting and loss of habitat have squeezed all but a handful of the remaining 80 to 100 cats south of the Caloosahatchee River.
Land said the actual panther count may be as high as 120, but there’s no way of knowing that.
“Now what we suspect is that the inn is full. There are no more vacancies and there is competition for the space that’s out there. With so many roads out there, that may explain why we have so many roadkills,” he said.
So far, nine panthers have been killed on Florida roads this year, one short of the record set in 2003. When all causes are added, this year’s panther death toll is 14.
Land is today’s featured speaker before the Habitat Conservation Plan committee. He plans to give a “big picture overview” of the species’ status in Collier as well as urge county officials to forge a stronger relationship with state wildlife officials.
Today’s meeting is at 10 a.m. at the county’s community development building off Horseshoe Drive.
The county turned its attention to panthers after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials signaled they would reject a habitat conservation plan that only accounted for woodpeckers’ needs. The federal agency told the county to take a multi-species approach.
Panthers, typically a shy creature, were in the spotlight last week as county commissioners debated the location of the line used to shield panthers from encroaching development.
The head of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida office has said the agency is considering relocating the line, which touches Airport-Pulling Road at one point. But science, not politics, will drive any decisions.
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Mesce’s husband, Bill, said he doesn’t fault the brazen panther for seeking an easy meal. But he doesn’t look quite as kindly on government biologists, who brought in eight cougars from Texas a decade ago to breed with the genetically weakening Florida panther population.
“I’m not pro-panther,” said Bill Mesce, a nature photographer. “To me, if it was going extinct, it was doing it for a reason.”
Pamela Mesce said she is afraid to go outside and won’t let her other cat outside, either. Several neighbors have had house cats disappear as well in recent days, she added.
The sight of her cat, Mizzy, kicking her feet while getting dragged away is seared into Mesce’s mind — a painful reminder of the consequences of living close to panthers.
As she recalled her personal tragedy Wednesday, she was struck by what the 911 dispatcher had told her the day before.
“Don’t shoot it,” the voice said. “It’s a protected species.”
“Well, you know what?” Mesce responded. “So is my cat.”