Thursday, February 18, 2010

Confirmation of Florida panther in Sarasota Co. brings debate

What follows a panther? A debate
Sighting supports view favoring greater protection here

By Kate Spinner

Published: Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 8:29 p.m.

SARASOTA COUNTY - She was late getting the truck back, but several hogs beside the dirt road made Stephanie Green brake and glance toward a nearby trail.

She stopped, shocked. A Florida panther stood 75 yards away, stock-still in the approaching dusk at T. Mabry Carlton Reserve. As Green, a Southwest Florida Water Management District land manager, reached for her cell phone camera, the big cat lept a broad ditch and vanished into the hammock.

Green's Feb. 5 panther sighting was extraordinary -- the first confirmed in Sarasota County since 2005. Typically, the panthers are not seen north of the Caloosahatchee River.

Coming shortly before environmentalists were scheduled to meet in Sarasota to discuss the panther's plight -- the meeting is set for today -- it also offered timely support for arguments that the endangered species deserve more protection here and in south Florida.

There are an estimated 100 panthers left in Florida.

"This fits into our position that panthers are on the move. Already they want to expand their territory back to where there used to be panthers," said Frank Jackalone, director of the Florida Sierra Club. "Conflict with human beings has resulted in narrowing their territory to the swamps of Southwest Florida."

The National Sierra Club and several other environmental groups will be discussing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision earlier this month not to designate 3 million acres of prime panther lands as critical panther habitat.

Jackalone said a "major announcement" would be made, but would not elaborate. A lawsuit against the wildlife service is likely.

Critical habitat, required for all species listed as endangered since 1978, sets high standards for protecting land where endangered animals live. The designation does not necessarily stop development, but can make development much more difficult.

Because the panther was listed as endangered in 1967, the wildlife service is not required to delineate critical habitat for it. Doing so would drain staff time and resources from other protection efforts aimed at the panther, said Paul Souza, field supervisor for the service's South Florida office last week.

The agency's recent panther recovery plan also thoroughly documented the panther's most important habitat already, Souza added.

From 2003 to 2008, however, the wildlife service allowed the development of 25,000 acres of panther habitat in South Florida.

Another recently proposed development, called Big Cypress, would destroy another 2,800 acres.

"To build a new city on top of panther habitat is a crime," Jackalone said. "We are trying to get critical habitat now north of the river in areas that could follow the same path."

The panther Green saw left unmistakable tracks, said Mark Lotz, a panther expert and biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Plaster casts were made of six tracks to verify that they belonged to a panther.

Sherm Stratton, vice president of Friends of the Carlton Reserve, publicized the sighting early Tuesday. He said he waited until the print was confirmed and for county staff to check the accuracy of his press release.

The Carlton Reserve and Myakka River State Park connect to several other preserved lands owned by the county, the state and the water management district, spanning about 100 square-miles. The preserves also border miles of ranchlands. Combined, the entire area could support the panther Green sighted and perhaps one more, Lotz said.

"That area is proven to hold panthers," Lotz said, noting that a panther roamed the same land between 1999 and 2005. "My guess is that it's going to hang out there for a while."


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