Supreme Court screw-up shackles the EPA on climate change

The main thing I remember about that day at the U.S. Supreme Court was how cold it felt. A couple of inches of snow had fallen that January morning in 1984, but the real chill was in the court’s marble halls.

This was back when newspapers had money to spend. The Pensacola News Journal paid for my plane ticket to Washington to cover oral arguments in a voting rights case. It was a big deal because it ultimately led to the election of Escambia County’s first Black commissioner, who also ran the state’s first funeral home with a drive-through window.

The courtroom where the arguments took place was hardly warmer than the weather outside. The layout seemed designed to elevate the black-robed justices above us mere mortals and make their pronouncements seem as profound as if handed down by some ancient emperor.

Because I am forever a smart-aleck, though, I wondered which ones were wearing ONLY a robe — nothing else.

The news last week about the Supreme Court’s string of right-wing decisions on abortion, guns, and climate change carried an even deeper chill than my memory of that long-ago winter morning.

First, the justices — three of whom were appointed by the ketchup-loving president who incited a riot to stay in power — voted 6-3 to give gun-owners more rights than pregnant women.

They did so by citing what the Founding Fathers thought and did in the 1700s, with little concern for how our world has changed since then. Apparently, those six are wearing 18th century knee breeches and wool mantuas beneath their robes, and no doubt will soon order the rest of us to follow suit.

When I heard the high court had also smacked down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for trying to combat climate change, I thought perhaps they had followed the same loopy logic: George Washington didn’t have to deal with climate change caused by coal-burning power plants, so therefore neither should the EPA.

But no, that wasn’t it. Instead, the majority opinion turned on a matter of what the kids on “South Park” would call “authori-tah.”

In other words, those six silly Supremes claim the EPA lacks the power to make power plants do the right thing for the planet.

This is particularly important decision for us folks in Florida, the state generally regarded as the one most at risk from climate change.

We’ve got sea levels creeping higher on three sides of us, the high heat gets worse, and hurricanes feeding on the warmer water gain greater strength before sowing destruction inland. There are other affects, too, including more toxic algae blooms (ew!), saltwater intrusion in our aquifer (yuck), and more mosquito-borne diseases (hello, Zika!).

I think I speak for everyone worried about Florida’s future as habitat for creatures without gills when I stand up to holler at these six dunderheads, “I object!”

Even Tricky Dick was for it

The fight here is over the Clean Air Act, which was passed back when even arch-Republican Richard Nixon claimed to be concerned about the environment. You know if Tricky Dick was for it, it was because he saw how popular it had become.

The first Earth Day drew millions of protesters into the streets across America in April 1970. They picketed against the nation’s rampant and destructive pollution of the air and water. By December, a bipartisan vote in Congress had approved the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Nixon quickly signed it into law.

Also born in December 1970: the EPA, created by Nixon (he really was a master at reading the zeitgeist, wasn’t he?). Under the Clean Air Act, Congress gave the brand-new EPA the power to regulate the sources of air pollution.

In the 52 years since, the EPA has used that power to clamp down on soot, smog, mercury, and the toxic chemicals that cause acid rain.

Air pollution is a threat to human health, so the EPA’s action has benefited all of us. No matter what our political beliefs, we all breathe air, right?

But when the EPA tried to take on the ultimate threat to humans — a scorched earth — that’s when the polluters really started pushing back.

I should warn you: This is where the whole thing gets craaaaaaaaaaaaaazy, and I don’t mean in a classy Patsy Cline kind of way.

Ruling against the Skunk Ape

Remember when a law professor named Barack Obama was president? Back before we had as chief executive a Florida golf club owner who’s now starring in my favorite true-crime TV show? (I just wish I could binge it.)

When he took office in 2009, Obama promised “a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.” But he had only a slim Democratic majority in Congress, and that for only the first two years of his eight in office.

During those two years, he was so focused on saving the auto industry, passing Obamacare, and reforming Wall Street that he missed his shot to pass any climate legislation prior to the 2010 mid-terms.

“Pro-fossil fuel industry groups spent record sums on Republican candidates in that election,” Inside Climate News reported in a 2016 round-up. “The House flipped and the Democrats’ lead in the Senate narrowed as a new crop of climate deniers was swept into Congress.”

In the remainder of Obama’s time, with no help available from Congress, he turned to executive orders and agency actions. His signature program was the Clean Power Plan, in which the EPA aimed to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by pushing them to switch to cleaner fuels.

Even though coal-burning power plants are a major source of carbon pollution, the Clean Power Plan would not have ended the use of coal, said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

“Coal would have remained in the energy fuel mix for years,” Burger told me.

But the idea of being phased out drove those fossil fuel fools to challenge Obama’s plan in court, stalling it before it could take effect.

Then, when Donald “Climate Change Is a Chinese Hoax” Trump took office, that plan got dumped. Trump’s EPA director — a former coal industry lobbyist — concluded that the agency lacked authority under the Clean Air Act to shift power plants away from coal to cleaner sources without some specific authorization to do so from Congress.

Instead, Trump’s EPA came up with a new plan that would not hurt the industry Trump himself often described (inaccurately) as “clean, beautiful coal.” I prefer to think of it as the “black-lung-for-everyone” plan.

When Trump lost all of his multiple bids to hang onto the presidency, his pro-coal plan went out the window. The Biden administration was working toward a new power plant plan but hadn’t plugged anything in yet when the Supreme Court jumped on the EPA.

The case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on was that challenge to the Obama plan — the plan that never went into effect. The court’s majority rejected a government program that didn’t even exist.

It was as if the court had ruled against the Skunk Ape, even though that smelly creature can be seen only in blurry photos on souvenir T’s.

The idiotic thing

The first time the Supreme Court heard a climate change case was 2007. Massachusetts sued the EPA because the federal agency had been reluctant to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Massachusetts said the EPA was wrong, and the court ruled 5-4 for Massachusetts. The act’s definition of air pollutant was written with “sweeping” and “capacious” language so that it would not become obsolete as technology changed, said the majority opinion.

One of the dissenters: Chief Justice John Roberts, who contended Massachusetts had no standing, which to me seems like a weaselly way to avoid the main issue.

Guess who wrote the majority opinion for last week’s climate change opinion. Roberts again — who, I must point out, was chosen for the court by George W. Bush, who wouldn’t have been elected president if not for Florida’s 2000 butterfly ballot boner.

The court challenge came from 19 states — so not even half of the 50 — as well as utilities and coal companies. Thank heavens Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who frequently dives into these kooky GOP legal kerfuffles as if all of the state’s taxpayers supported her, chose to skip this one.

This time, Roberts did not say the states lacked standing. Instead, his opinion aped the conclusion of Trump’s pro-coal EPA:

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” Roberts wrote. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme. … A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

Never mind that 200 Democratic members of Congress filed a friend of the court brief insisting that they were fine with what the EPA was doing. Never mind that Congress repeatedly failed to act, leaving the EPA to handle it. And never mind that “capacious” and “sweeping” language mentioned in the 2007 decision.

And never mind that the Clean Power Plan was cheaper for the power industry than any other alternative.

“That’s the idiotic thing,” said Burger. “The Clean Power Plan was considered to make the transition [to clean sources] the most affordable way.”

For a brutal rebuttal, I refer you to the clearly angry dissenting opinion by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and the retiring Stephen Breyer.

“Today, the court strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,’” she wrote. “Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. … The court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

I can, Justice Kagan: Living in Florida while the Supreme Court botches the response to climate change. That’s scarier than anything at the Busch Gardens Howl-o-Scream.

Empty-headed emperors

This particular court ruling didn’t rate the razzing its abortion and gun decisions attracted. The closest was satirist Andy Borowitz, who in The New Yorker offered the headline, “Nation’s Fetuses Puzzled Why Supreme Court Wants Them Exposed to Air Pollution.”

The sitting EPA administrator, Michael Regan — who is most definitely NOT a former coal lobbyist — talked about launching a “counterpunch” to the ruling. I think what he’s referring to are several ideas explored by Inside Climate News last week that it said are “more restrictive and more expensive for the power sector.”

So, what can we do, here in Florida? Not much — yet.

Our governor, Ron “The Developers’ Dupe” DeSantis, is happy to spend tax dollars armoring waterfront property against rising seas, but he refuses to do any “left wing stuff” to wean the state off fossil fuels. In fact, he can’t even bring himself to say the words “climate change.”

There are two people who’d like to replace him, and both are able to utter that phrase.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced recently that she’s setting a goal for Florida to switch to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050.

The only problem is, she can’t enforce that. The rules are in the hands of the Public Service Commission, all gubernatorial appointees, and under DeSantis the PSC tends to be to the utilities as Miss Piggy is to Frank Oz.

The only Florida governor to ever crack down on coal-burning power plants was a Republican named Charlie Crist. Now Crist, a congressman, is running for governor as a Democrat.

“This Supreme Court has gone wild,” he told me Wednesday. “It’s pretty scary stuff. Basically, shackling the EPA is not good for Florida or for America.”

When I asked him what he’d do about it if elected, Crist promised he’d “sign an executive order on my first day in office to limit carbon emissions.”

But what can we, as citizens of Florida, do to let the Supreme Court know we think they’ve screwed up? Here’s my modest proposal.

Every time your street floods on a sunny day, every time a storm surge washes out your property, every time you discover saltwater has toppled your freshwater-dependent palm trees, scoop up a bottle of the stuff.

Put a label on the bottles that says, “This Is the Result of Your West Virginia vs. EPA Opinion.” Then mail it to the chief justice’s office in Washington, D.C.

And maybe send some clothes, too. I think beneath their robes, all of six of these empty-headed emperors are actually naked.


Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

New algae blooms expose Florida Gov. DeSantis’ failure to fix pollution

Have you noticed the Democratic candidates for governor — Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried, and Annette Taddeo — milling around like a bunch of lost children lately?

While they vie for which one of them will get to take on the incumbent Republican governor, Ron “Let’s Give the Attorneys Millions” DeSantis, this fall, they look a little discombobulated. That’s because they’re trying to figure out which issue might become a club with which they can whomp him upside the head. Repeatedly, if possible.

Restricting abortion access? Suppressing Black voters? Punishing Disney for having a political opinion he doesn’t like? Forcing locally elected school boards to follow his statewide anti-mask mandate? Focusing on frivolous stuff like squelching “critical race theory,” or creating a “Victims of Communism Day” in the schools while ignoring the far more urgent property insurance crisis, auto insurance crisis, and affordable housing crisis?

He’s guilty of those multiple misdeeds. But so far, polls show he’s successfully ducked being blamed by the voters for any of that.

To me, the biggest threat to DeSantis’ reelection isn’t one of the Democratic candidates. It’s not even human. And it’s tiny.

But the last time anyone checked, it had multiplied so much that it covered 60 square miles of Lake Okeechobee.

No, I don’t mean the coronavirus (which, perhaps thanks to DeSantis’ hostility toward masks, appears to be on the upswing again here in Florida).

I’m talking about toxic blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria. It’s spreading across Lake Okeechobee like a scandalous celebrity rumor on social media. And it’s waaaaaay nastier.

A free pass for polluters

“Health alerts have been issued for blue-green algal toxins found in Florida waterways,” WPBF-TV reported on Monday, noting that they’d been located in two sections of the lake.

The alerts say to steer clear of the bloom and avoid swimming or fishing there. Can do, hoss! Nobody wants to swim in green ooze that scientists say can damage your brain. After years of exposure to toxic Florida politicians, my brain already feels as frah-gee-lay as the leg lamp in “A Christmas Story.”

Lake Okeechobee is huge. It stretches for 730 square miles, so 60 of those is (carry the two, add the remainder, take off your shoes and count your toes) only 8.2 percent of its total surface. Compared to the whole lake that’s not a lot — not yet.

But the weather is heating up as we head into the summer months. Heat combined with the lake’s heavy pollution load tends to set toxic algae to multiplying like the Tribbles on “Star Trek.”

Given the right conditions, “in a week, a waterway as large as Lake Okeechobee can see a majority of its … expanse become horribly slimed,” the editorial board of TCPalm.com noted recently.

Meanwhile, hurricane season officially starts on June 1 (although the meteorology folks are already tracking the first tropical wave of the season). Forecasters predict another above-average season, with a total of 19 named storms dumping tons of rain.

During hurricane season, heavy rains often fill the lake to the point that the Army Corps of Engineers starts worrying about the Herbert Hoover Dike collapsing and the lake sloshing out and killing nearby residents.

To avoid a repeat of the tragedy of 1928, the Army dumps a big load of water out. Some of it goes to the St. Lucie River in the east and some to the Caloosahatchee River to the west. It winds up in two brackish estuaries.

No one who lives there wants this infusion of fresh water, because the lake water is carrying the blue-green algae bloom with it.

That’s why this fledgling bloom is a harbinger of what could be another ugly summer — a time when tourism- and fishing-related businesses fall prey to a thick layer of what looks like guacamole and smells like the worst litter box in the world.

A bloom like that would remind voters that, despite his best efforts to avoid the truth, DeSantis is a big-time promise-breaker.

“He has given a free pass to large and small polluters all over the state,” said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. “That’s his badge of shame that he hides.”

Ron’s big boat ride

Stuart resident Cyndi Lenz, a nurse, has been through some major algae blooms that closed beaches and chased tourists away. She remembers when the stench was so bad her neighbors had to wear masks just to breathe.

She also remembers when a gubernatorial candidate named DeSantis visited the St. Lucie River in 2018. His promises then gave her hope for the future.

He was a little-known congressman running against a Big Sugar puppet named Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination. Because the sugar companies had been blamed for Lake Okeechobee’s pollution problems, the DeSantis campaign thought it would be smart for him to show up at the scene of an algae bloom.

He took a boat ride with a couple of other politicians and talked to scientists, local business owners, and environmental activists about the causes and impacts of the blooms. He told reporters that the tour helped him better understand how blooms harm local businesses, according to TCPalm.com.

“These are mom-and-pop people,” he said. “These aren’t real wealthy, big corporations. This is kind of the lifeblood of what a local economy is all about.”

Maybe while we’re remembering the victims of communism, we should observe a day for the victims of Florida’s algae blooms, too.

We should remember the owners of motels, the charter boat captains, the beach wedding photographers, the car rental places, and the seafood restaurants advertising a fresh catch. All of them lose business when an algae bloom breaks out.

The governor seems to have forgotten all about them.

“Now I have no confidence in the man,” Lenz told me this week.

Not only did DeSantis fail to do what he promised about the blue-green algae blooms, she said, but he’s endorsed Senate President Wilton Simpson to be the next agriculture commissioner. Simpson is as big a stooge for Big Sugar as Putnam was when he was the ag commissioner.

“Nothing has changed,” she said with a sigh.

Great ideas we’re ignoring

We know now that DeSantis makes a lot of promises that he has little interest in keeping — buying the bankrupt Garcon Point Bridge in the Panhandle to lower the tolls, for instance. But, back in 2018, desperate people assumed he was sincere when he promised to rid Florida of the ugly algae.

And he started strong! He appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force full of actual scientists. They held a series of meetings and issued what they called “a consensus document” — a playbook for cleaning up the state’s rivers, lakes, and bays.

If DeSantis were an NFL quarterback, this is the point at which you’d say he was handed a surefire playbook, then fumbled the ball, declared victory, and walked off the field.

The task force’s recommendations have yet to be enacted by the Legislature, and DeSantis hasn’t pushed them to do so. Instead, our fine lawmakers passed a platter of wishful thinking they named the “Clean Waterways Act,” perhaps to show what a delightful sense of humor they possess.

“The Blue-Green Algae Task Force was nothing but a show,” complained Costello, who has grown frustrated at seeing their good work ignored year after year.

For instance, the bill didn’t require farmers to monitor or reduce the pollution running off their land. “Instead, the new law continues what is effectively a voluntary program — one so forgiving that no rancher or farmer has been sanctioned for water-quality violations,” the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2020.

Environmental groups begged DeSantis to veto the bill and force the Legislature to go back and do it right (just like the power play he used when legislators produced a redistricting map he didn’t like). Instead, DeSantis signed it into law.

“Our children and future generations serve as a stark reminder of what’s at stake when discussing the importance of creating a clean, healthy, and stable environmental foundation for their future,” he said at the time, not meaning one word of it.

“Why do we have a Blue-Green Algae Task Force if the state isn’t going to adopt its recommendations?” Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, asked me this week. I am suggesting we rename it the “Great Ideas We’re Ignoring Task Force.”

The buck stops over there.

Why did DeSantis balk at following through on his promise?

Perhaps because really cleaning up the state’s pollution would require getting tough on those “real wealthy, big corporations” that are major campaign contributors. A man intent on running for re-election or even higher office has to keep in mind where his money comes from. You notice he didn’t attack Disney until after the company stopped giving him money.

This is not a new low in Florida. It’s just business as usual.

In 2001, the Legislature ordered a 75 percent reduction in the pollution flowing into Lake Okeechobee. The deadline was 2015. As of 2021, the amount flowing into the lake was about the same as it was in 2001, Samples told me. Nobody has bothered to enforce the law and there’s no penalty for ignoring it.

So the pollution continues flowing unabated, and that blue-green tint continues to creep across aerial images of the lake.

When a TCPalm.com reporter contacted the members of the committee this month to ask their opinion about all this, they blamed the feckless legislators.

“Sometimes I wonder if any of the Legislature listens anymore,” one of them said.

But none of them blamed the man who appointed their task force, and who’s gotten exactly what he wanted out of the Legislature. And that’s fine with the man who’s apparently got a plaque on his desk that says, “The Buck Stops Over There Somewhere.”

The Ron DeSantis Prize Patrol

To disguise his failure to keep his promise, DeSantis has been running around the state like the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol handing out checks the size of surfboards.

Each time, he’s plunked down millions in taxpayer money to deal with the symptoms of what’s gone haywire in our waterways and avoid any discussion of the cause.

So far, Lenz told me, he’s got lots of her neighbors fooled.

Part of the problem, she said, is that 900 new people move into the state every day. Most of the newcomers have no idea about what DeSantis promised, what fuels algae blooms, or how bad they can be. They are as unschooled in this subject as they are in what would happen in a Category 5 storm. As a result, they are easily distracted by DeSantis’ diversions.

Just last week, the Ron DeSantis Prize Patrol popped up at the Jacksonville Zoo. He was there to tout a budget item that would set aside $30 million for rescue and rehabilitation efforts for manatees. He bragged that this would be an increase of $17 million from the previous year.

Not mentioned: More than 1,000 manatees starved to death last year because toxic algae blooms killed the seagrass they normally eat, and nothing DeSantis has done so far will stop that from happening again.

The deaths for 2022 so far are already nearing 600, with the year not even half over.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, just sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing Florida to get away with weak pollution standards, endangering the manatees. The EPA turned around and pointed the finger at Florida for doing such a poor job with pollution.

But no one pointed a finger at DeSantis. Once again, he’s evaded responsibility.

Perhaps his gubernatorial rivals will decide to whomp him over the head with this. Anyone who voted for DeSantis last time thinking he’d be good for the environment could look at this Lake Okeechobee bloom and see a sound reason for why he’s not worthy of re-electing.

“Well,” you might say, “I don’t live near Lake O, or the St. Lucie, or the Caloosahatchee. That means that algae bloom mess doesn’t affect me.”

Oh, but it does, Sunshine. You see, Lake O isn’t the only place where pollution is rampant and toxic algae has erupted as a result.

Folks in Sarasota, for instance, have been plugging up their nostrils for the past week because of a foul-smelling blue-green algae bloom in the bay.

Meanwhile, up in Tallahassee, the Leon County Health Department has issued a warning about blue-green algae blooming in 288-acre Lake Munson.

“The lake has a history of severe water quality and ecological problems,” WCTV-TV reported. Lots of that going around!

Florida recently ranked first in the nation for polluted lakes. How many more of Florida’s waterways will sprout an algae bloom over the summer? How will DeSantis try to avoid being held responsible?

This is why I think we should challenge DeSantis to a debate — not with Crist, Fried, or Taddeo, but with a massive algae bloom.

Sure, it’s not human. But that stuff smells strong enough to stand up on two legs like a not-at-all-jolly green giant and roar into a microphone. Really, it doesn’t have to say a word — just confront DeSantis with proof of what he failed to do.

Besides, one whiff of that awful stuff and even our anti-mask governor will be reaching for an N-95.


Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

The federal ‘protector’ of endangered Florida panthers now wants to kill one

They say that cats have nine lives. I am not sure that’s the case with Florida panthers. Sometimes it feels like everything in the world is trying to snuff them out — everything human, that is.

In the 1950s, hunters killed so many panthers that state officials banned shooting them. In the 1970s, their primary habitat, the Big Cypress Swamp, was nearly turned into the world’s largest airport (they were spared by, of all people, Richard Nixon). By 1995, there were so few left that inbreeding was producing major genetic defects.

Yet they have hung on like that kitten in the 1970s inspirational poster, and now there are about 200 slinking around what’s left of Florida’s wilderness.

That’s still not a lot. And now a federal agency has decided to kill one.

Yes, you read that right. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. government agency in charge of protecting panthers and the one doing such a bang-up job protecting manatees, has imposed the death penalty on one of these rare cats.

I learned the story behind this bizarre decision by perusing about 400 government emails (What do you call a group of emails? A flurry?). I obtained them under Florida’s wonderful Government in the Sunshine Law, which our Legislature keeps trying to flush down the toilet like a batch of embarrassing White House documents.

Reading them kept me up past midnight, just like a good murder mystery, except in this case the murder hasn’t happened — yet.

Who’s the victim? Well, biologists studying panthers assign them all numbers, not names. It’s a way to make sure they don’t start treating these apex predators like pets. But a few panthers have made a name for themselves anyway.

Florida Panther 3, for instance, died accidentally while being captured, an incident that occurred during the early days of the state wildlife agency strapping radio collars on the big cats for research. That’s the panther death that led to the discovery of the genetic defects. Its taxidermied remains are on display at the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee.

FP 62 was the first radio-collared panther to ford the Caloosahatchee River and prove panthers could live in other parts of the state besides southwest Florida. It roamed as far north as Disney’s Animal Kingdom before its collar’s battery conked out and we lost track of it forever.

Then there was FP 79, nicknamed “Don Juan” for his prolific breeding success. Er, um, we won’t discuss that .

The panther I want to tell you about right now is FP 260. This cat experienced a brush with death, recovered, was celebrated for its successful release back into the wild, starred in a nature film and then — hoo boy! You can’t see it, but I am shaking my head right now because of what happened next.

Beginning last fall, 260 became the center of a bizarre spectacle involving paintball guns, a pack of hunting dogs, and a politically connected rancher. As of February, we still haven’t seen the end of it.

As a result of this high-profile conflict, the feds decided 260 has to die. The agency would prefer to capture this cat and stick it in a zoo forever, thus taking one of the 200 panthers back out of the wild and thwarting its potential to breed just as it reaches maturity.

But if no zoo is available, then the agency stands ready to dispatch 260 across the Rainbow Bridge. Or as the federal panther coordinator wrote in an email, “We will make plans for capture and euthanasia.”

Florida’s panther scientists disagree with that move. I would say “strongly oppose,” but that seems like an understatement, based on the fiery emails they’ve sent.

One warned the consequences would include “public outrage” that would lead to “serious negative repercussions” for both the state and federal wildlife agencies. Another state employee wrote that she’s been losing sleep over what the callous feds were about to do: “FP260 is not a criminal. He is a wild panther.”

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to take such a drastic (and probably illegal) step for one simple reason. In the words of one state biologist, “FP 260 is the renegade panther with a taste for veal, unfortunately.”

From near-roadkill to calf killer

Years ago, the main cause of death for male panthers was other male panthers. They’re territorial animals. When one male moves into another male’s territory, a fight inevitably ensues, sort of like when my mullet-haired cousins from the Panhandle go to their local roadhouse.

But over the last 20 years, as new roads were built through panther habitat and lots of cars and trucks zoomed down those roads, the leading cause of death became vehicle collisions. In 2020, 19 of the 22 panthers found dead had been flattened by cars.

FP 260 nearly became No. 20 on the roadkill roll call.

Fortunately, after a car clobbered the cat in December 2020, someone who witnessed the collision stopped to check on the victim, thinking it was dead.

“Surprisingly, he found the cat still alive and made sure no other cars struck it,” Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy wrote on a Facebook post for her JB Ranch. “After a few minutes the cat made his way across the road and under a fence onto my ranch property.”

Prieddy called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Soon a team of biologists showed up, tranquilized the injured panther, and took it to the Naples Zoo for treatment and rehabilitation.

Prieddy, in her Facebook post, wrote that it would be “released back in southwest Florida, ideally on someone else’s property.”

Fortunately, 260 didn’t break any bones. Veterinarians cleared the cat for release after just two weeks. Biologists strapped a radio-collar on the panther’s neck, named it FP 260, and turned it loose in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Having been hit once, FP 260 apparently learned an important lesson about avoiding a second such near-death experience. As excited biologists tracked its radio-collar positions, they saw it began navigating the area using underpasses.

“By using up to 12 different wildlife crossings, FP 260 has been able to safely access Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Big Cypress National Preserve without ever setting a paw on a paved road,” a wildlife commission press release stated. The panther’s adaptation was so remarkable that it was noted by a local TV report.

A short film called “Wildlife in Our Backyard” featured FP 260 too. In the movie, sponsored by the Florida Wildlife Federation and shown at several festivals, the narrator says that 260 “can show us what success looks like” for humans sharing the Florida landscape with wildlife. “He is successfully living and navigating the fragmented landscape. … FP 260’s future is bright, demonstrating hope for all of our native wildlife.”

By the time the movie hit the fall festival circuit, though, FP 260 had returned to the JB Ranch and started preying on Liesa Priddy’s calves. Normally, panthers prefer to eat deer or feral hogs. But starting in October and running through December, FP 260 took down nearly a dozen of her heifers.

Priddy is a former state wildlife commissioner whose tenure was — oh, what’s a good word for it? Controversial? Yes. Headline-making? Sure. The subject of ethics complaints? That too, but she was cleared.

She has been complaining about panthers attacking her cattle for more than a decade. She has never been shy about calling, texting, or emailing state and federal officials to demand they do something about her losses, and for a very good reason.

“It’s nice for agency folks to empathize with ranchers who are losing calves; but it doesn’t seem to register what we are really losing is dollars,” she wrote in one email about FP 260 to a top wildlife commission official written in blood-red letters. “Our ranch loses at least $25,000 per year from this problem. Anyone you know want a $25,000 pay cut?”

In 2016, Priddy became the first rancher ever compensated by the federal government for losing cows to Florida’s official state animal. But the reimbursement process is slow and full of red tape, she told me when she and I talked this week.

Now, in a matter of months, a single panther had chomped on at least 10 of her calves, and she demanded action, pronto.

“She understands that we do not typically capture, relocate [or] haze panthers in most scenarios unless there is a human safety concern,” state panther biologist Dave Onorato said in an October email regarding FP 260.

But as Priddy’s calf losses mounted, her calls for help went to higher-ups including the chairman of the state wildlife commission and the head of the federal wildlife agency in Florida. As a result, the state and federal agencies broke from the “typical.”

First, they tried “hazing.” They used a pack of hounds normally employed to track the panthers for collaring the cats, and chased FP 260 away from one of its kills, treeing it not once but twice.

Then they fired what are known as “shell crackers” using a paintball gun, a method usually used to scare off bears. When the federal panther coordinator, David Shindle, heard about the panther’s appearance in the “Wildlife in Our Backyards” movie, he joked, “FP 260’s future is bright … illuminated by the dazzling pyrotechnic displays of shell crackers.”

That didn’t deter the persistent panther. It would not depart Priddy’s ranch.

For their next step, in November, state biologists tried relocation — capturing the cat and moving it.

“After anaesthetizing him, they transported him from the JB Ranch to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park,” Onorato wrote in an email.

They turned it loose at a spot 18 miles south of the ranch. A little more than a week later, FP 260 returned to the free smorgasbord provided by Priddy’s herd, in almost the exact same spot where it had been captured.

Shindle’s job involves all 200 or so of the panthers, but he was giving this one his full attention. He made repeated visits to the JB Ranch, checking the places where FP 260’s radio-collar had been pinpointed.

Once, he nearly stumbled into the object of the uproar. He joked that “I was so close that I looked into his eyes and could see his soul.”

In a November report on that encounter and their options for dealing with FP 260, Shindle wrote that all the panther’s attacks “have so far not included a potential human safety concern.” Under their official Panther Response Plan, the state and federal agencies still classified this as a low-risk situation — annoying and expensive, but not a threat to humans.

But then, in December, that changed.

Marked for death

Newspaper accounts of the 1800s and early 1900s are rife with wild stories of panthers attacking humans. However, the number of documented Florida panther attacks on people is exactly (carry the one, add the remainder) zero.

Even though our cars and trucks kill them with a sickening regularity, the panthers would prefer to slink off than tangle with us hairless apes.

Yet in December, Priddy told federal officials that she feared FP 260 would attack a human. That gave them the legal pretext they needed to declare it a threat deserving death.

Shindle, in a late December email, wrote that his agency had “determined that Florida panther FP 260 should be permanently removed from the wild on the basis of the following federal authority” — and here he cited a specific federal regulation on endangered species — which “provides for removing animals that constitute a demonstrable but non-immediate threat to human safety.”

Then he wrote that if they couldn’t find a zoo to take it, “the USFWS will exercise the above authority to kill this panther.” Like Steven Seagal, FP 260 was now marked for death.

Shindle wrote that the leadership of the state wildlife commission — Chairman Rodney Barreto and executive director Eric Sutton — “concurred with the above determination.” They did so even though it is counter to what their own biologists want and constitutes a step that longtime environmental advocates say is unprecedented.

I asked Priddy about her fear of 260, telling her that, in my experience, she’s never been afraid of anything — including reporters asking snarky questions. What made her fear this panther?

She told me it happened when she accompanied biologists investigating one of her dead calves: “The panther was still nearby, and I saw it looking at us.”

How did 260 react to seeing humans so close? “It crouched, watched, and silently moved away,” she said.

I told her that didn’t sound like threatening behavior. She said she’d seen videos of cougars out West attacking their prey and knew that these big predators are “nothing to mess with.” Then she said, “Who knows what goes on in their heads?”

One thing Priddy had not included in any of her emails, but that she told me when I asked, is that she has been reimbursed for the loss of eight of her 11 lost calves.

The Naples Zoo — the institution that cared for FP 260 — paid her $752 per calf, which she said was last year’s market price. That’s a tad over $6,000. They would have given her money for the other three, she said, but that’s all their budget allowed.

So, to sum up: Because one influential person who’s seen some YouTube videos got n-n-nervous being close to a panther, and because she is out roughly $2,200 for the uncompensated loss of three calves, the might and power of the federal government stands ready to turn 260 into dead meat.

This cat, once hailed as a success story for its dogged survival, would become, to borrow the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “A stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! He’s shuffled off his mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PANTHER!”

Fortunately, 260 so far is (to quote a different Python sketch) not dead yet.

The reason is simple: Calving season ended at the JB Ranch. Around the time some ill-informed muckety-muck in Atlanta or Washington turned thumbs-down on its future, the young panther with the ravenous appetite left, heading back to wilderness far from cars and humans. Thus, “killing the panther is not being considered,” an agency spokesman said this week.

Its well-timed departure at least gives everyone time to reconsider this boneheaded decision. I can’t understand what the wildlife service bureaucrats were thinking but, as Priddy said of panthers, who knows what goes on in their heads?

I asked Priddy if killing this panther or locking it away in a zoo forever, all on her say-so, would be a tragedy.

“No,” she said. “There’s plenty more to take its place.”


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