"The state is showing a total disrespect for wildlife. They are going against — against — tradition and the values of the people of the state of Florida."

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FWC meets strong public opposition on proposals for panthers, bears

Florida's endangered panthers and targeted bears received strong public support Tuesday as state wildlife officials opened a three-day meeting in Sarasota that figures to shape years of conservation policy.

More than 200 funneled into a ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel to hear a 36-page report on panthers by the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. As the meeting started roughly 50 were signed up for a chance to speak, an FWC official said.

The Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Defenders of Wildlife, and Big Cat Rescue were among conservation and animal welfare groups that led a rally and held a press conference before the meeting.

"Both the panther proposal and the bear proposal are absolutely linked to [residential] development," Frank Jackalone (below) of the Sierra Club said.DSC02993 (2) (Small).JPG

The report details escalating problems with panthers in Southwest Florida, including a rising number of fatalities in collisions with vehicles. The FWC also seems ticked off in the report at federal partners for an "aspirational" and unrealistic conservation effort.

According to the report, “It is imperative for the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] to fully recognize the success of panther recovery efforts in South Florida and take leadership responsibility for implementing new and innovative management measures."

That claim of success was hotly debated.

The FWC estimates 100 to 180 cats live in Florida, mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River. Wildlife officials counted 46 panthers in 1990, a grim statistic that sparked a bold breeding experiment with Texas cougars. That was a success and by 2006 there were 97 panthers.

The FWC says today's panther population in Southwest Florida is maxed out because "basically there's too many panthers on a limited amount of habitat," FWC commissioner Liesa Priddy said.

Several conservation groups are claiming the FWC -- ordinarily considered an ally -- is caving into special interest groups, namely developers. Jackalone said the FWC is being manipulated by Gov. Rick Scott.

"The governor of this state came into office pledging to spur enormous growth and bring as many people here as he can," Jackalone said. "He certainly has had many conversations with a lot of people for a long time who have an economic interest in that happening."

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The FWC says habitat for panthers exists north of the Caloosahatchee but argues that establishing new populations is federal responsibility under a joint management plan.

"We have achieved great success recovering panther populations in Southwest Florida," the FWC report says. "[But] there has been essentially no progress in meeting the broader range-wide recovery criteria, particularly establishing two additional viable populations of at least 240 panthers."

DSC03001 (2) (Small).JPGJennifer Hecker (at right), director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said shifting policy for panthers "risks the final extinction of the species."

"It is an unbelievable situation that we are finding ourselves in," Hecker said. "Our own state and federal conservation agencies are taking part in protecting and furthering private interests that are at odds with what is best for the public and public resources."

Next up: bear hunting. The commissioners are expected to vote on final rules that will allow an annual one-week bear hunting season, starting in October.

"The state is showing a total disrespect for wildlife," Jackalone said. "They are going against — against — tradition and the values of the people of the state of Florida."

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