Photo by John Hayes

Conserving the Florida Panther on Private Lands
Elizabeth F. Pienaar Summary

By Jenna Cole, Daniel Evans, and Mahi Puri

Dr. Elizabeth Pienaar is an associate professor in the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department at the University of Florida. Dr. Pienaar presented her and her lab's work on Florida panther conservation. She began her seminar by introducing some background information on the situation for panther conservation. Dr. Pienaar explained that two-thirds of Florida land is privately owned, this means that conservation efforts generally require the consent of private land owners; government agency and public support is also required to help mitigate conflict between people and wildlife, and that people are critical to wildlife conservation. There are challenges that arise when planning conservation efforts for endangered species, especially since funds allocated to wildlife are taken from other public services such as health care and education. The Florida panther was listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and the current population estimate is around 230 individuals. For the Florida panther to be delisted (recovered) there needs to be three populations of 240 or more individuals for over 12 years. Dr. Pienaar stated that Florida can only sustain two such populations. More habitat is required, so private land is needed. Two types of lands that panthers need are primary and dispersal habitats. There is a current incentive program for landowners. Tier 1 land: landowners is paid $30.80 per acre for engaging in beneficial activities for panther habitat (burning, mechanical vegetation treatment, invasive control) for five years, and Tier 2 land: $9 an acre for prescribed grazing plan. In addition, the USFWS offers a "Safe Harbor Agreement" which allows land owners to help the endangered animals, but they can withdraw their land without penalties.

Since delisting the Florida panther necessitates habitat be conserved on private range lands, Dr. Pienaar's research focused on identifying cattlemen preferences for panther and habitat conservation programs. In order to accomplish this, she composed a survey that was distributed to the cattlemen. The emphasis was placed on cattle ranches since these areas were typically low intensity land usage, provided a mosaic of habitat types that benefited both panthers and their prey, and cattlemen tended to already be engaged in land stewardship practices. The role of cattlemen in panther conservation was influenced by cattlemen-panther conflict (depredation of livestock), cultural stressors related to concern about the loss of their way of life, economic stressors concerning price of beef and being able to make a lot of money by developing the land, and societal portrayal of cattlemen as not conservation minded. This indicates that the conflict is beyond just with panthers, so the solution needs to include these other issues. The results of the survey indicate that cattlemen are white males over the age of 50, 80% owned the land, 65% had 250 head of cattle, and only 6% had depredated livestock by panthers. The attitude of the cattlemen was that they should be able to shoot a confirmed problem panther, but that the panther does have the right to exist.

The goal of the survey was to find out which programs might be of interest to cattlemen that would protect panthers and the habitat. Possible plans included different factors: technical assistance; incentives; monitoring organization; amount of acres enrolled; and contract duration. Dr. Pienaar's lab conducted a "best-worst" choice experiment to ask which of the factors would most likely and least likely encourage them to enroll in a program. Technical assistance was the highest, then incentive, and acres enrolled. The survey showed that improved game populations, habitat payment incentives, enroll more land for less time, and not working with USFWS were preferred. The conclusions of the study were that cattlemen were not just focused on incentives, they looked at program values that impact cultural values and personal autonomy. In southern Florida there were government trust issues, with private property rights and personal autonomy being primary concerns. While surveys are useful, you can't assume that it will show what people will actually do. There were a few interesting management implications. The contract obligation and complexity affect willingness to enroll, incentives should focus on habitat conservation rather than species, and the need for a trusted agency to implement the program.

Dr. Pienaar then went on to talk about panther issues in a residential community, Golden Gate Estate (GGE). GGE is an area with large lot sizes, and while the front yards were manicured and maintained, the back yards were not, providing great panther habitat with native prey, livestock, and outdoor pets. One plan to mitigate panther conflict was by asking residents to secure animals inside or in a "panther proof" cage of their own design. A survey was conducted to find out what residents thought about the panther, and if they would be willing to secure their animals to mitigate conflicts. The results indicated that many GGE homeowners felt that excessive development around GGE, poor management of livestock, lack of code enforcement, and providing agricultural tax exemption were all causes of the conflict. Opinions about panthers ranged from pro-panther (panthers were a part of the community of Golden Gate Estates and wanted to protect it) to anti-panther (threat to human safety). However, many people had a positive feeling towards panthers, and most did not feel that they were a threat to humans. Dr. Pienaar and one of her students ran a regression to look at what was driving feelings toward panthers. They found people who had a high tolerance were aware of the panther prior to moving to GGE; displayed proper animal care; felt that GGE residents were willing to manage their property to mitigate issues; and had an overall environmental attitude. Residents not tolerant of panthers tended to be older; had a verified panther depredation; were livestock owners; and were concerned for human safety.

Dr. Pienaar concluded with some final thoughts. There is a heterogeneity of preferences, no "one size fits all" solution, so you need to focus on the majority. There is a lack of trust between stakeholder groups and the need to facilitate cooperation. People want someone to listen to them and what they have to say. Many conservation conflicts require multi-disciplinary solutions and an understanding of why there is conflict and what solutions can work. It is important to understand that you must work with other people to accomplish wildlife conservation, and to understand your roll and how you fit into the solution.