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The Fall of the Cat of God
A real estate boom threatens the rare Florida panther

Bill Updike, Staff writer/editor, Defenders of Wildlife online magazine

 

 

 

 

 

Dump trucks line the road fronting the offices of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge on this sunny spring morning in southwestern Florida. The trucks, sitting at a stoplight on Highway 951 in Naples, are carrying limestone, trees and shrubs out of the forests, prairies and swamps surrounding the 26,400-acre refuge. The contents are headed for the dump-- the final resting place of much of Florida's natural habitats these days. The scene here symbolizes what's happening around the state: unbridled development and a related loss of land available for wildlife. Fewer than 100,000 people lived in Florida when it became a state in 1845. Now there are more than 17,000,000, with as many as 1,000 new residents arriving daily. By 2030, the state's population could top 30,000,000. This is bad news for wildlife like the refuge's rare namesake, according to Larry Richardson, a refuge biologist.

There's a direct correlation between Florida's uncontrolled development and having the third largest number of endangered species in the nation," says Richardson. "What's tragic is we risk losing the sentinel of our environmental health when we turn habitat into houses."

That sentinel-- the Florida panther-- once numbered in the thousands and ranged throughout the Southeast, from Louisiana to Tennessee and east to the Atlantic coast. Native Americans shared their backyards with the cats and drummed up various names for them. For Florida's Seminoles and Miccosukees, it was a version of the term 'tiger.' The Cherokee called the cat klandagi, or "lord of the forest," and the Chickasaw called it ko-icto, or "cat of god."

When European explorers arrived with their manifest destinies, they dubbed the animal "panther"-- adopting a term they used to describe African leopards-- but the cat is actually a subspecies of the cougar. Similar in most ways to its cousins in the West, the panther weighs as much as 160 pounds and stretches seven or eight feet long when fully grown. It is generally tawny toned, but lighter on its chest, belly and inner legs. Its coloring is much like that of its main prey-- deer. (The cats also feed on feral hogs, birds and small mammals.)

White settlers in the South, as elsewhere, transformed the land and killed predators such as the panther. In the late 1800s, a panther scalp fetched a state-funded bounty of five dollars. Habitat loss took its toll as well, and by 1967, when the panther was declared endangered under a precursor of today's federal Endangered Species Act, only about 30 of the animals were left.

Florida has become an increasingly popular destination since that time, and the little remaining land available for the rare cats has continued to decline. The state, which once served as an Eden for wildlife, sporting millions of birds and likely more than a thousand panthers, has become a heaven for developers. And now, saving these "cats of god" may take an act of divine intervention or a godly act by humans.
 

 

  GUILTY OF THE CRIME OF SOUND SCIENCE?

Andy Eller, a former assistant panther coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a quiet wildlife lover-- the kind of guy who slams the brakes on his truck when he sees a snake on the road and coaxes the reptile out of harm's way. But in early 2001, he decided he couldn't keep quiet about the panther anymore.

Eller began questioning both the science his agency used to make decisions regarding panthers and a number of development projects being proposed in panther country. He was told by his supervisors that the office "does not issue jeopardy decisions" on development in southern Florida (and hasn't done so since 1994). A "jeopardy decision" basically states that a project would harm an endangered species like the panther and halts work on it, at least temporarily.

Eller was told it was office strategy to "run silent, run deep"-- meaning avoiding the gaze of the Bush administration. Asking questions caused the biologist to become persona non grata and led to a number of disciplinary actions against him, including a suspension following a conflict with a developer's representative in early 2004. Eller was fired on November 5 of that year, just three days after the election. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have maintained that Eller's firing was related to personnel issues and not his whistle-blowing. (They declined to answer questions on the issue, citing their policy of not commenting about personnel cases.)

But Eller and others believe his dismissal was politically motivated-- and symptomatic of a larger problem regarding the role of science in the Bush administration. A recent survey of Fish and Wildlife Service employees by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 44 percent of those responding had been asked by their superiors to avoid making findings that would require greater protections for endangered species. And 56 percent say agency officials changed rulings under pressure from industry.

The Fish and Wildlife Service admitted this March that it had used flawed science to craft some of its plans for the panther-- confirming Eller's and other experts' analysis. But the biologist says the agency's admission made him wonder "if you're not using the flawed science, then what are you using now?"

Perhaps Eller can find out if he gets his job back. He has been working with lawyers from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to get reinstated, and at last report, a hearing was planned for this summer.

Update: After this issue went to press, Andy Eller was reinstated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Specifically, it will take a massive effort to buy up and protect land if we don't want these animals to become a glorified zoo species. "Habitat, habitat, habitat," stresses Deborah Jansen, a biologist with Big Cypress National Preserve. The preserve, more than 720,000 acres of habitat abutting the eastern boundary of the panther refuge, plays an essential role in the drama of panther protection.

If we said, 'what does the panther need,' we'd say, of course, it's habitat," says Jansen. But the challenge of buying or preserving land in a state with a booming real estate market may be insurmountable. "We should have bought any private lands as they came on the market, but we have lost those opportunities because of soaring land values."

Some of the needed funding is available through a state-run land preservation fund, called the Florida Forever Act, and also through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (although some leaders in the U.S. Congress have been gunning to cut the funding for this landmark legislation recently). But the state and federal agencies often can't compete with real estate developers. In many parts of southern Florida, median land and home prices have gone up 10 to 30 percent per year for the past couple of years.

To take advantage of the boom, developers are clear-cutting trees, digging ground and filling wetlands faster than you can say the word profit. In Lee and Collier counties in southwestern Florida, at least 1,000 acres of wetlands are filled every year-- likely more than all the other Florida counties combined, according to Andy Eller, a former panther biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (see sidebar).

Eller showed me around a few sites planned for future development on the northern border of the panther refuge on a sunny day in April. Despite the great weather, the outlook wasn't pretty. One of the largest of these developments is Ave Maria University, a new Catholic school planned for 4,995 acres of farmland, hardwood hammocks and prairies directly north of the refuge. The proposed site, which includes a planned town for housing and businesses to serve the university, is in the heart of panther country.

Biologists have recorded more than 300 panther 'hits' during the last 25 years on radio-tracking devices in the area just southeast of where the university is slated to spring up. Says fellow biologist Richardson: "Building breeds building, and Ave Maria has opened the floodgates."

But the problem is not just the quantity of habitat, Richardson tells me as we are bumping and sloshing through the panther refuge on a "swamp buggy"-- a vehicle that looks like a cross between a giant Tonka toy and an all-terrain vehicle. It's also the quality of the habitat.

In Florida, a matter of a few feet or even a couple of inches can drastically change the habitat type. You can walk a mile or much less and trudge and slush through four major land types-- from cypress domes to prairies to pine flat woods to hardwood hammocks. The difference centers, for the most part, on elevation and water-- a resource used and badly abused by the state.

Says Richardson, "When they began building canals on what is now I-75 (Alligator Alley) in 1963, it was the beginning of the end as far as water patterns." Wildlife, including the panther and its prey, have had to learn to adapt to these changes or perish.

Massive habitat loss and changes in natural water flows would be enough by themselves to wreak havoc with a top predator like the Florida panther. But there are other threats as well. When the animal's population hit its low point in the 1960s, the scarcity of mates created what scientists call a "genetic bottleneck"-- otherwise known as inbreeding. Many experts suspect this has caused unusual changes to the cats' appearance, such as crooks in their tails and cowlicks in their hair, as well as some animals being unable to reproduce.

To confront this problem, federal and state biologists in 1995 brought in eight female cougars from Texas to increase the genetic diversity of Florida's cats. The new blood seems to have helped greatly, according to Jansen and other experts. There are now more cats than before, and their genetic pools are more diverse.

In addition to the genetic problems, panthers are also threatened by a slate of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, found in the air, water and prey in southern Florida. The cats are also being sickened and killed by diseases-- including feline leukemia, rabies and pseudorabies-- brought on in part by animals introduced by humans. Biologists are working hard to immunize the creatures.

And, if the toxins and diseases don't get them, then the roads often do. Of the roughly 80 or so cats now in the wild, as many as seven are killed each year by drivers. To accommodate all the new development, the state is building new roads and adding lanes to existing ones. More roads and more cars mean more road kill-- devastating for panthers and other wildlife.

Despite the dire outlook, Florida panthers have shown themselves to be resilient animals, and enough undeveloped land remains for at least a small population to survive. The trick, according to biologists, is to work much more aggressively on protecting land in Florida and also establishing new populations of panthers elsewhere in their historical range in the southern United States.

Both are tenuous and tricky propositions, though. The price of land in Florida continues to climb, and recent discussions about reintroducing panthers into Arkansas met with opposition from the state government and many of its citizens.

But panther biologists remain cynically optimistic, a contradiction that perhaps allows them to be realistic, but also to get up in the morning and do the work they need to do to protect the few remaining cats.

We've increased their numbers, which is good, but we didn't increase the land for them," says Jansen. "What we have today as public lands is what we'll likely have in the future. We are going to have to be managing these cats in this small area forever."

By Bill Updike, Staff writer/editor,
Defenders of Wildlife online magazine http://www.defenders.org/

 

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