A new state policy on management of the Florida panther recognizes that the Fish and Wildlife Service "has the authority under [the Endangered Species Act] to make final decisions regarding how and where panther populations may be expanded or established." But it also said the state will work with the federal agency on panther issues.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved amendments to the "position statement" Thursday after a debate that occurred over two days of meetings. | Press release from FWC
The commissioners agreed to add language to the draft statement about working with FWS to expand the panther population beyond the Southeast portion of the state, a day after rejecting the same language, according to a report by Naples Daily News' Eric Staats.
"FWC will continue to partner with the USFWS and will assist with panther issues statewide within our available staff and budgetary resources," the new language says.
But the policy retained language stating "it is important at this stage, given the need to focus FWC resources on the current breeding population in SWFL, that the USFWS lead this process forward and provide the resources and funding necessary to take the next steps in expanding panther populations outside of SWFL."
Here's a crucial paragraph from the policy, with a new sentence that was added to the draft italicized for identification:
FWC recognizes that the USFWS has the authority under ESA to make final decisions regarding how and where panther populations may be expanded or established and that this process will need to be implemented one step at a time. The first step should be a robust and comprehensive evaluation of habitat suitability for breeding populations north of the Caloosahatchee River including other southeastern states as required by the recovery plan. A second step should focus on assessing and improving the social acceptance of panthers in potential range expansion areas where panthers have been exceedingly rare or absent. FWC understands that natural range expansion from the current breeding population north of the Caloosahatchee River may occur in the near future. FWC and USFWS are working with stakeholders on this issue, but there is a need for the USFWS to take a stronger role and provide more clarity, certainty, assurances, and incentives regarding the implications of having breeding panthers north of the river. The importance of pursuing mechanisms to incentivize and compensate landowners for providing panther habitat such as payment for ecosystem services and conservation easements cannot be overstated and should be a top priority. FWC supports moving these efforts forward in a more expedited manner as well.
The entire policy is posted below: