Critics argue plan should do more to prevent attacks on humans before they happen
By Jeremy Cox
Monday, October 16, 2006
It is the "what-if" that shakes Southwest Florida conservationists to the core: What if a Florida panther ever injures or kills a human?
State and federal wildlife officials are finalizing a plan that will prescribe how agencies should respond to panthers behaving badly. Called on to review the plan recently, several independent scientists and officials reached a similar conclusion: The plan, as written, is "self-designed to allow problems to occur" and should do more to prevent attacks before they happen.
Wildlife officers and officials have been using a draft of the plan since February 2005. In that time, panthers have attacked goats in Golden Gate Estates, carried off a Chihuahua in Immokalee, eaten cats and hogs in Copeland and swiped a turkey from a petting zoo in Ochopee.
"We understand the situation; we have the priority of people No. 1 and safety," said Capt. Jayson Horadam of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But it's a learning experience because we haven't experienced this before."
Over the past quarter-century, the panther population has grown from about two dozen to an estimated 80 to 100 cats — a number still considered critically endangered. The biggest gain came from the introduction of eight female Texas cougars in the mid-1990s to help diversify their Florida cousins' gene pool.
During the past 25 years, Florida's human population has jumped, too — 223 percent, in fact, from 5 million to 16 million. Most panthers live in eastern Collier and Lee counties, two of the fastest growing areas in the country.
"Consequently, less vacant land is available for panthers in South Florida," according to the plan, written by a team of biologists led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The potential for panther-human interactions on public or private land exists and is likely to increase as development spreads into panther habitat and as more people live and recreate within public lands."
There are no reports of a Florida panther ever having attacked a human, except for one possible occurrence detailed in a newspaper account from the late-19th century, officials say.
The plan acknowledges it's a possibility, though.
The issue will have to be handled from both biological and social dimensions, said Layne Hamilton, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the plan's lead author.
"We know if that happens there's going to be understandable backlash from the public. It's something we hope to God we never have to deal with," she said.
In case of a human attack, first responders have the authority to kill the panther, according to the plan. In relatively minor brushes, the panther could be moved to captivity. Meanwhile, the plan calls for increased patrols in the area, informing nearby residents and the media of what happened and closing the area where the attack occurred if possible.
The plan also gives instructions for dealing with an incident as innocuous as a panther sighting. Wildlife officers should post signs in the area, recommend landscape modifications to the landowner that would discourage panther encroachment and apply "aversive conditioning" to the offending cat. That can include blowing air horns and playing tapes of barking dogs until the panther gets the message that it's not welcome.
As the threat escalates, so does the response. For example, if a panther appears to stalk humans, officers must respond within 24 hours and remove the cat from the wild.
The plan is taken nearly word for word in some sections from wildlife response plans in South Dakota, California and other western states where mountain lions and cougars roam close to civilization. The Florida panther is the only puma subspecies living east of the Mississippi River.
At the request of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, five scientists and officials reviewed the panther response plan. The scientist who criticized the plan as "self-designed to allow problems to occur" is an expert in wildlife and human dimensions at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Dan Decker suggested that Florida officials maintain open communication with people living in panther country.
"Community engagement is not emphasized (in the plan), yet such engagement and two-way communication is needed to build support for (the) program, especially a recovery program that is expected to spill animals over into private land," Decker wrote.
Philip Koepp, now retired, helped manage a cougar population for the National Park Service at Big Bend National Park in Texas. He criticized the proposed size of the response team charged with deciding the fate of problem panthers.
"(It) is difficult to believe that 14 individuals from at least four geographically separated offices could possible obtain information from the field" and make timely decisions, Koepp wrote.
Hamilton, though, said the system is working so far, thanks to cell phones and e-mail.
"The basic plan seems to be a good plan," she said.
Koepp also questions whether residents would be willing to bring their children inside at dusk or after dark if the government advised them to do so, saying "it is doubtful that people will allow themselves (to) be held hostage by an endangered species."
Hamilton said she expects to finish the plan by the end of the year.