Several panther attacks on calves have Immokalee ranchers on alert

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Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

A female panther drags off a goat killed June 6 at 15th Street Southwest while one of her kittens waits on the other side of the fence. A trail camera with a motion sensor captured the image.

IMMOKALEE — Liesa Priddy marks her calendar when one of the special breed Cracker cows gives birth at her family’s JB Ranch south of Immokalee.

Another tally is sharpening the edge on conflicts between ranchers and endangered Florida panthers in eastern Collier County.

A panther, maybe more than one, is attacking and killing newborn calves at the Priddys’ 9,000-acre ranch and in a neighbor’s pasture along State Road 29 south of Oil Well Road since the start of the fall calving season in September.

“It’s going to be a very difficult problem to address, but it’s going to have to be,” Priddy said. “We can’t afford to keep losing cattle.”

Stories about panthers attacking calves have made the rounds in Immokalee before, but this time it’s different.

The kills at the Priddy ranch and at the pasture were reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and biologists confirmed them.

The attacks are occurring in the heart of panther territory, where large landowners’ cooperation is key to the survival of a rebounding population that is running out of room in Southwest Florida, state and federal wildlife officials say.

As pressure mounts to take action, a panel of panther experts has convened to try to come up with a plan.

“We’re not sure if this is an anomaly, a new reality, tip of the iceberg, or what,” Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land said.

In the meantime, higher-ups at the Conservation Commission and at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service call the situation a top priority.

“We’re very concerned, and it has the highest level of attention at the FWC,” said Kipp Frohlich, the agency’s imperiled species management section leader.

Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor Paul Souza said: “All of us recognize this is a very serious matter and we’re giving it our full attention.”

Officials are trying to determine how many panthers are responsible and whether any panther should be captured or relocated, Land said.

Their playbook on how to handle conflicts with panthers, written in 2008, doesn’t envision attacks on commercial cattle operations.

Officials also are discussing the possibility of creating a compensation fund, modeled after a similar program in Western states, to reimburse ranchers whose livestock is raided by endangered wolves.

The attacks in eastern Collier County aren’t as easily prevented as recent strings of attacks on chickens and goats kept in backyard pens and barns in Golden Gate Estates.

In the Estates, residents can protect their livestock by putting it behind panther-proof fences or in sturdy enclosures with roofs at night.

But fences and barns aren’t a viable option for ranches that have hundreds of head of cattle roaming thousands of acres, ranchers say.

Officially, the Conservation Commission has confirmed four panther attacks on calves, including three deaths, at the JB Ranch and at the pasture, but state biologists don’t doubt that the toll could be higher.

The Priddys say they have confirmed five attacks at their ranch alone and suspect panthers are responsible for four more.

The deaths mean not only a financial blow to their cattle operation but an emotional tug, too, Priddy said.

She said the first three calves killed were from the Priddys’ prized herd of Cracker cattle, descended from cattle the Spaniards brought to Florida in the 1500s.

Calves sold at auction after they are weaned, at eight or nine months, can fetch between $600 and $800 apiece, she said.

“That’s our bread and butter,” Priddy said. “That’s what we live on. That’s what we pay our bills from.”

The first calf went missing a couple days after it was born Sept. 25. The mother cow bellowed as she looked for it, Priddy said. Circling vultures that could lead searchers to the dead calf weren’t present, but they suspected a predator, she said.

Two more calves were born Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, and a family friend volunteered to stake out the Priddy homestead Oct. 2.

That Saturday night, he watched as a panther attacked one of the calves. He was able to scare off the cat, but while he waited in his truck, the panther came back a second time, Priddy said.

Land responded to the first report himself at about 10:30 that night and found the calf alive but with panther bite wounds on its head, biologist Mark Lotz said. Lotz said that when he and Land returned the next morning, the calf was gone but male panther tracks were everywhere.

That attack happened about 100 yards from the Priddys’ home on the west side of S.R. 29, Priddy said.

On Oct. 15, the Conservation Commission confirmed another panther attack on a calf in a neighboring pasture south of the Priddys on the west side of 29, Lotz said. That calf was severely injured and was euthanized, he said.

The bulk of the JB Ranch is on the east side of 29, and the Priddys moved the herd in hopes of deterring further attacks, but they kept coming.

On Monday, the Conservation Commission confirmed two more attacks that left one calf dead and a second one that still is alive with severe head injuries.

The JB Ranch herd has some 300 cows that have given birth to almost 50 calves so far this fall, and Priddy is hoping for a couple hundred more.

Their fate could have repercussions beyond Southwest Florida.

Scientists say some 100 to 120 panthers remain in the wild after a genetic restoration project brought the population back from as few as 30 cats. The project introduced eight female Texas cougars to the Florida population in 1995. None of them remain.

Federal plans call for establishing new panther populations in other parts of Florida and the southeastern United States before the panther can be taken off the endangered species list.

Those plans depend on finding a way for panthers and people to coexist in Southwest Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.

“We’ve got to get it right here,” she said. “What community is going to say, ‘Give us a predator that’s going to prey on our livestock?’ They’re not.”

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