A new federal report in January announced the obvious: that the Florida panther population must grow to survive — ideally, to three separate populations of at least 240 each — but that it is ever more desperate for space. The report, by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, rehashed the thorny old idea of moving some of the cats to Central Florida and eventually to other states where they once roamed, like Georgia and Arkansas.
But there are no firm plans, and with the panther population still endangered but healthier than it has been in decades, South Florida is facing an equally thorny new question: what to do when panthers get too comfortable on human turf?
The article discusses one panther whose taste for chicken and even domestic cats took him out of the wild and into Busch Gardens at Tampa. The panther problem throws an uncomfortable light on one of the most contentious — and pervasive — of factors in the decline of wild populations of many species, habitat loss. Specifically, habitat lost to another species, Homo sapiens. It is a well-known principle of ecology that small, fragmented populations are more susceptible to extinction. But that is exactly the situation that obtains as human structures like interstate highways effectively subdivide territories and disrupt movement and migration pathways of non-flying species. Land put into cultivation does not support the previous biodiversity of a region. And suburbs are hostile to all but a few domesticated species, some wild species tolerant of proximity to humans (e.g., raccoons and opossums), and the usual pest species that profilerate in association with humans (e.g., rats).
The brass tacks are that if wildlife biodiversity is to be maintained at some modest fraction of its former amount, humans have to plan for it and stick to the plan. And that will mean that there will be significant amounts of land set aside as refugia, with easy access connecting separate refugia to encourage gene flow between populations. This is not a comfortable lesson, as it stands in contrast to the notion that development for human uses may continue until every last acre that can be exploited has been exploited. Habitat loss is unlike issues of pollution or global warming, where dealing with the latter two have undeniable direct benefits for humans, too. Stopping habitat loss, by contrast, has direct costs for humans and indirect benefits in the form of maintaining biodiversity. It requires analysis that takes into account the long term, not just short-term economics.