December 16, 2016
One commissioner stays in center of panther controversy
A state wildlife official believes panthers are dangerous predators that are killing her livestock and showing little fear of humans. She also thinks there are too many of them in Southwest Florida.
Meet Aliesa Priddy, a third-generation Collier County rancher and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner who is part of a growing group of ranchers, hunters and landowners who say the Florida panther is nothing special and should be removed from or reclassified on the federal Endangered Species List.
Although the panther is the official Sunshine State animal and is considered by some biologists to be one of the most endangered mammals on the planet, Priddy and others say panthers are the same as all the other cougars, pumas and mountain lions in North America.
Priddy, who lives and ranches just south of Immokalee, has accepted money from the state to protect panther travel corridors while also pushing for development on nearby panther lands.
As The News-Press investigated the commission appointed to protect wildlife in Florida, Priddy kept popping up on panther and black bear issues.
– She pushed through a FWC paper that said panthers have reached capacity in Southwest Florida and that the state would let the feds worry about expanding their range. She said people here are fed up with panthers.
– Panthers have killed calves on her land, and she has been compensated by a state program for the lost cattle. But she also urged FWC biologists – essentially state employees whose boss she directs – to designate livestock deaths as panther kills after biologists had made a decision that they were not panther kills. She also argued with biologists that photos of a bobcat were actually a panther, according to emails obtained by The News-Press.
– She voted for a controversial bear hunt in 2015, even though the public and environmental groups said she has a conflict of interest because she profits from a hunting camp on her ranch.
The News-Press made similar records requests for the other six commissioners but did not find these types of communications or other potential conflicts of interest.
Her term expires in January, but Priddy said she hopes to be reappointed.
In her landowner role, she accepted $3.75 million from the state in 2015 for a conservation easement on part of her land meant to help panthers travel north to the Caloosahatchee River and beyond while, in her FWC role, argued against expanding the panther population to areas in central and north Florida.
Earlier this year, she and eight other landowners asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicefor permission to develop thousands of acres of prime panther habitat in the Immokalee area. Because several endangered or threatened species live on and use the land, the group needs an approval called an "incidental take permit," which says up front that development will likely hurt those species.
Road kills are the top cause of panther deaths, and development will bring more vehicles and roads to the area. Biologists say the growing panther road kills are caused by a combination of a human development and a growing panther population.
“She’s already getting funding from Governor Scott and she would probably be eligible for other (federal) funding,” said Jaclyn Lopez, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tampa, a non-profit national organization that fights against the extinction of animals and their habitat. "And then on top of that she wants a permit to remove panther habitat."
Priddy is taking money to help the cats while making money off development projects that could compromise panther recovery goals under the Endangered Species Act.
The development plan, Priddy says, is misunderstood: She's selling development credits from her land to the developers, who will then build on infill lots in and around Immokalee instead of building in prime panther habitat.
"Our group is trying to work within the parameters of what the plan calls for and it allows for planned, concentrated development while you are conserving much larger pieces of property which will never be built on," Priddy said. "Our part is going to be part of the conservation – it is important to do that level of land planning. I don’t want more houses. If I could get rid of a lot of the houses that are in Florida, I would. I’m just not of that mindset."
Seeing the big picture
Some critics, she said, simply don't understand wildlife management issues and are acting on emotions more than science and practicality.
"(Some people have said) you should sell all your cows and do something else," Priddy said while sitting in the living room of an old cottage her family restored. "But when my grandfather started ranching back in the ‘30s, there weren’t panthers. When he began the ranch we operate now, there were no concerns about panthers. They had been extirpated by that time because it was legal to kill panthers. It was a varmint, like a rat or something."
And she does have her share of supporters, many in the hunting and farming communities.
On the bear hunt, Jay Cross, president of the Naples-Fort Myers chapter of Safari Club International, a non-profit wildlife conservation and hunting rights group, said: "I think they’re doing an admirable job of trying to balance this equation of too many animals and not enough space. I don’t know a better or more efficient way to balance that equation than using the tools you have at your disposal."
“She and her husband have been great," said Rick Dantzler, executive director of Florida's branch of the federal Farm Service Agency. The agency runs a program to compensate ranchers and farmers for livestock lost to certain predators, such as Florida panthers. "They have been tremendously cooperative. They are willing to be whatever kind of test case we need, have not been an impediment.
“She sees the big picture," he said. "She sees why it’s necessary to make this program work. It’s a key component to the effort to save the Florida panther.”
The Florida Audubon Society and Florida Wildlife Federation have also commended Priddy publicly for her work with panthers and for helping ease tensions between ranchers and the feds.
Three ethics complaints were filed against Priddy this year, but were dismissed. The state's ethics commission ruled that Priddy does not have conflicts of interest in regards to wildlife and hunting regulations and any planned developments she may be involved in.
Priddy is part of the Sunniland Family Partnership, under which the outfitter, Everglades Adventures, is listed as a secondary source of income on her personal finance disclosure.
Because money made from hunting on the ranch is paid to Sunniland, and not Priddy directly, she does not have a conflict of interest, the commission ruled, when it comes to making hunting laws, even though she makes money from hunting.
The family owns a hunting camp and Priddy has refused in the past to talk about how much money she made off the black bear hunt – a hunt she and other commissioners supported and voted for.
"The complaints that were filed were so obviously baseless to me," Priddy said. "They didn’t like that I voted for the bear hunt, and it was just a difference in opinion."
Priddy, who comes from a wealthy, longtime Florida ranching family, says she was shocked by the allegations that she has any conflicts of interest.
She said she hasn't done one thing to lessen panther protections and only wants to represent concerns from people living in rural communities south of Lake Okeechobee.
"From our perspective, the panthers may have been here first, but that was so long ago that it wasn’t an issue for our ranching operation dating back to the 1930s," Priddy said.
And there must be more balance between species protection and impacts to the private sector, she said.
"To totally restrict folks from doing anything with their property is a violation of private property rights. How would you like it if someone came in and told you what your landscaping can be or you can’t have a pool," Priddy said. "This is our home. This is where we live. We’re showing you we’re taking great care of it, so just leave us alone and let us do our business."