Conservation, Hunting in the Middle of Controversy

Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock since the late 1960s has heard about the controversy surrounding the restoration of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf feeds on elk and deer and the occasional cow or pet poodle. Hunters and ranchers across the West and north-central United States wonder why an apex predator has been protected to the point where it is eating their deer, elk and cattle.

Restoration of the Florida Panther has created a controversy that continues to brew amid many groups including hunters.

Restorationists believe the gray wolf to be a part of the natural order of things and widely support efforts to repopulate the animal. Wildlife officials are caught in the middle, spending endless hours attempt- ing to referee human conflicts with the gray wolf, and to satisfy all parties involved. Wolves are hunted in some states and protected in others. Authority over the wolves can be either at the state or federal level. The courts have been engaged in lawsuits as more and more wolf issues emerge.

More than a few inches of ink have questioned if the gray wolf is too much of a good thing. Now the same thing is happening with the Florida panther.

The Florida panther had been darn near eliminated when it was put on the Endangered Species List in the early 1970s. Since then the animals have recovered to the point where they are regularly encountered in the wilds of south- west Florida, the same country that provides some of the best hunting in the state and is occupied by some of Florida’s largest cattle ranches.

Florida Panther populations are estimated as restoration efforts continue, leading to more conflicts between farmers, ranchers, homeowners, hunters and wildlife officials. (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Hunters complain that the panthers are taking all of the deer and wild hogs, and ranchers are losing their calves. Wildlife officials are turning their attention to the conflict that occurs when an apex predator and the public occupy the same space. It’s becoming more of an exercise in human dimensions than biology, and the courts are beginning to become engaged.

One of the real points of contention is the parties have trouble agreeing on panther population numbers. Panthers were once down to a dozen or so animals. Now officials are reporting the number to be a some- where around 120. Hunters and land- owners are calling “foul.” They have seen dramatic increases in panther numbers on their properties (game cameras and encounters), increases in road kill numbers and increased panther predation. They believe the number is much higher, too high in fact. State authorities agree that work needs to be done on keeping track of panther populations and they are currently looking for better ways to measure the numbers.

Phil Adams is a Fort Lauderdale hunter who spends weekends on a sprawling cattle ranch in the center of panther habitat. He monitors a dozen or so remote cameras on the ranch.

“I’ve been using remote game cameras on this ranch for over 15 years,” he said. “At one time every picture taken was of a deer, a wild hog or maybe a whooping crane or turkey. We had tons of game. Now hog pictures are almost non-existent and our whitetail numbers are way down. Panther pictures are an every week occurrence. I ride the ranch every weekand if I see a hog i nmy travels it’s a big deal. I almost see as many cats [panthers] on the ranch as I do hogs. I see some deer, but only a fraction of what we saw a few years ago. The panthers are up and the game is down, and I have the pictures to prove it.”

Cliff Coleman manages more than 5,000 acres of commercial hunting property near the Caloosahatchee River on the northern-most range of panther country.

“The cats are frequent visitors to the ranch,” Coleman said. “They come in, take some of our game animals and head out. They have wiped out most of the local hogs and taken whitetails and some exotic species. We have lost thousands of dollars [invested] in game animals.” We need a solution, and we need one fast.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission readily acknowledges that panthers prey heavily upon wild deer. Corey Morea, deer management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Department, readily acknowledges panthers’ preference for deer.

“Deer are one of the favorite foods of the Florida panther,” Morea said. “Our research shows that panthers prey on them on a regular basis.”

But Morea is careful to state that panthers might not be the only factor impacting south Florida deer population dynamics. In fact, a major research project is under way in south Florida’s panther habitat to investigate factors impacting deer population dynamics.

“We have launched a major deer research project in south Florida to look at deer dynamics in our prime panther habitat,” he said. “We are looking very hard at habitat and hydrology as well as predation. We are not entirely sure the panthers are the only factor impacting the herd in the study areas. We hope to be able to draw some concrete conclusions when our research is completed in 2018.”

WATCH: Make Your Hunting and Scouting More Successful

So far the deer mortality component of the study has pointed to the panther as a major contributor to whitetail mortality. Thus far, (five quarters) panthers have been responsible for deer mortality in almost 70 percent of the cases investigated.

Dr. Mike Cherry, one of the principal research scientists on the South Florida Deer Study, states: “Panthers are the most important predators of adult deer in the system.” He, too, is quick to add that the study is far from complete. Florida Panthers are classified as opportunistic ambush predators. As such they are ideally suited to prey on game species visiting the game feeders used by many south Florida hunters. It is believed that a panther will take one deer or hog per week. South Florida hunters frequently see them climbing trees to wait for game coming to feeders.

Chris Adams has been hunting with his dad since he was 6 years old. He has logged many thousands of treestand hours and has encountered dozens of panthers in the wild.

“Panthers have changed almost everything around here,” he said. “The deer don’t use the same areas. I’ve seen panthers camped out in the trees in the areas our deer used to use. We hardly see hogs anymore and the deer are getting more and more scarce. I run into panthers all the time. Panthers keep turning up in the places I hunt. They move right in on me. It makes me uncomfort- able when they come right in on me. We could use a season to thin them out. We now have a bear season, but I hardly ever see a bear. The panthers are all over the place.”

Adams is not the only south Florida hunter calling for a season. It’s hard to spend time in the hunting and ranching community without hearing suggestions such as: “Something has to be done.” Something such as hunting or trapping, anything to mitigate the impact the panthers are having on cattle and wild game. Suggestions to relocate some of the animals to take the pressure off south Florida have not been well received by ranchers in other parts of the state, who fear a new apex predator introduced into their locations would result in livestock losses. There are already reports of panthers spreading outside of their core location in south Florida.

As the great No. 8 would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Ranchers and hunters are beginning to question the wisdom of bringing back this apex predator while restorationists continue to celebrate their success. Wildlife officials, while not quite caught in the middle (yet) would be wise to take a page out of the gray wolf management handbook and maybe a little Shakespeare to go with it — after all, “Past is prologue.”