Thursday, November 16, 2006

Brushes with Florida panthers on rise

Meeting to address panther concerns

By Byron Stout
Originally posted on November 16, 2006

An encounter with panthers last spring by 22-year hunting guide Mark Clemons and his client, John Woods, may be the most alarming of all incidents documented by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Clemons and Woods were hunting turkeys on the McDaniel Ranch in Hendry County when they found themselves encircled by four menacing panthers.

Increasing encounters between endangered Florida panthers and people living in rural areas are posing enough concern to wildlife officials to hold a town hall meeting at 7 tonight on how to live safely with the big cats.

Although attacks by closely related cougars have occurred in California, no attacks on humans by Florida panthers are known.

But since January, there have been six confirmed incidents of of panthers preying on pets and livestock. Those cases involved three panthers, the FWC reported. In 2004, there were two instances, and last year there was one.

The theme of the meeting will educating the public and removing temptation from the apex predators, which are fully protected under state and federal imperiled species provisions.

FWC panther team leader Darrell Land, in Naples, said recent incidents with panthers in the Collier County communities of Ochopee, Immokalee and Golden Gate Estates involved panthers preying on a house cat, a small dog and livestock, including turkeys and emus — ostrichlike birds that can weigh more than 100 pounds.

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta has arranged the town hall meeting with participation by state wildlife biologists, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Park Service.

"My concern is people may not know there is potential danger. That's what this meeting is about — being aware of the danger and how to mitigate it," Coletta said.

Clemons and Woods know the danger first hand.

On March 8, they were walking behind a dike, a few miles north of the Big Cypress National Preserve, when Clemons spotted four of the big cats coming toward them across a pasture. Clemons said he saw panthers on almost every turkey hunting trip last spring.

"When they got close, we walked up on top of the dike so John could get a good look at them," Clemons said by phone from his office at Everglades Adventures hunting outfitters.

What happened next took the guide by surprise. Instead of turning to avoid them, the panthers — a mother and three yearling offspring — came directly to them.

"The female went by, but the juveniles came up and circled us, and then the female came back," Clemons recalled. "One was really nasty. (FWC investigator Roy McBride) said that was probably the male."

In his incident report, McBride estimated the juveniles to weigh about 60 pounds and the mother 100.

Clemons said the cats were so intimidating that Woods and he stood back-to-back, he with a .45 automatic pistol and Woods with a shotgun loaded with turkey shot, leveled at the endangered beasts. The guide said the cats circled for what seemed like an eternity, but probably lasted closer to six or seven minutes.

"I had to hit it with a rock, twice, to get it to leave. It was a baseball-size rock. He did not want to leave," Clemons said of the young male.

"The other three weren't aggressive. They were just there for the action."

The cats finally left when the mother chirped to them and led them away.

Clemons said he came across a female burying her kill of a 40-pound feral sow in leaves Wednesday morning, a typical sighting. But the incident last March was so alarming he was compelled to report it to the commission.

Coletta said an incident that inspired him to call the town hall meeting involved a large panther known as Don Juan, for having fathered some 30 offspring in the Big Cypress National Preserve area.

"On Loop Road there is an Indian family. In order to protect his family, (the father) put up a high chain-link fence, because of a panther that was out there," Coletta said.

"When the children would play in the yard, he would follow them from one side to the other. That's getting a little too familiar."

Land said Don Juan, or FP-79 as he was known officially, was given people-avoidance therapy and relocated to remote areas, but his behavior became intolerable when he moved into the communities of Copeland and Ochopee.

Don Juan now lives in retirement at Busch Gardens.


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ABOUT FLORIDA PANTHERS
• Name: Florida panther — Felis concolor coryi, a race of the North American cougar
• Status: Endangered — population 70-100.
• Range: Southern Florida, primarily in Collier and Hendry counties. No breeding population north of the Caloosahatchee River
Home ranges of dominant males average 200 square miles; 75 square miles for females.
• Prey: White-tailed deer and feral hogs for prosperity; raccoons and other smaller mammals for subsistence, if necessary.
• Size and reproduction: Females range from 50 to 80 pounds at two to four years; males average over 90 pounds at two to three years and have been captured at more than 160 pounds. Females bear one to four kittens every two years, with young leaving the mother in 18 to 24 months.
• Recovery efforts: Severe inbreeding in a population estimated at 30 to 50 resulted in traits including kinked tails, cowlicks and undescended testicles, until genetic restoration was begun in 1995. Five of eight female panthers from Texas produced kittens in the wild. All of the Texas cats either died or were removed by 2003, and inbreeding traits essentially have disappeared.
Male panthers are intolerant of one another and often thwart recovery efforts by killing each other. The greatest threat to recovery now is lack of habitat for expansion. A 120-pound male panther estimated at 3 years old was killed in 1995 on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County near St. Augustine. Since 1972, 44 panthers have been killed in highway accidents.
• More info: http://myfwc.com/panther; http://www.fws.gov/endangered/i/a/saa05.html

-- Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

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