In the February issue of Boca magazine, Thomas Reinert, regional director for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s South Region, shares insights into invasive species, how we can better live in harmony with the natural world, and the results of his organization’s unprecedented manatee feeding program.
But, like certain thriving animal species, our conversation was wide-ranging, and covered much more than could fit in the magazine. In this Web Extra, Reinert discusses imperiled species protocols, the threatened Florida panther population, the relationship between hunting and conservation, and more.
Are there certain animal species whose populations have been dwindling, that might be at risk of becoming endangered?
Florida does have imperiled species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has regulatory control over federally endangered and federally threatened species. If they are federally listed, they are automatically listed in Florida’s state list of threatened species. For Florida, we have one list, and it’s state-threatened, and it includes everything that is federally listed. And there may be species that in Florida, they don’t reach the listing level nationally, but they are of concern to us, so they are state-threatened species.
So we have an imperiled species management plan, and many of those species have imperiled species guidelines. We have a very active program to make sure that any of those imperiled species in Florida are managed appropriately and protected, and with a plan to try to lift them up from that status. A lot of this is on our website. Myfwc.com is a great resource—for imperiled species, for invasives, for nonnatives.
We see signs everywhere: “Don’t feed the wildlife.” Why is that so important?
We don’t want to habituate those animals to people. … Feeding wildlife, outside of birdfeeders in your backyard, is just not a great idea. There’s a woman who’s always throwing old white bread to the white ibis in the neighborhood. That is a terrible food for birds. It can spread disease, it’s low in calories and low nutrition for them, and they don’t process it very well. Please don’t feed your birds and ducks white bread.
Birdfeeders can become an attractive nuisance for raccoons and even bears in bear country. So we do have to be careful with our birdfeeders, particularly in rural areas. Bears will come and eat that, and now you’re attracting bears to your property. A fed bear is a dead bear. If they become habituated to people, that’s way too easy; they’d rather raid a trash can then dig up grubs all day, and once that happens, there’s not enough zoos for us to take these bears. Once they’ve learned that behavior, we can’t put them far enough away from people. They’ll always come back. It’s an unfortunate situation where we do have to trap them and put them down. I hate when that has to happen.
If you’re lucky enough to see a Florida black bear in its natural habitat, really enjoy that. Don’t approach it. I want people to see our native wildlife and respect it, and enjoy it from a distance. We want to respect the wildlife and help them survive. And they don’t really need our help, at least in terms of feeding.
What are the current Florida panther numbers?
It’s hard to measure, but I think adults and kittens, we’re probably in the low 200s. They’re doing well in their current, fairly restricted habitat in South Florida, but we’ve got some really encouraging signs that we now know and have documented female panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River, and a female panther that has had kittens north of the river. That’s a range expansion. That river has long been an impediment to them expanding their range. Male panthers have been seen as far north as Georgia, because they wander far and wide. But getting female panthers north of the river and having kittens there is just a great success story, and we hope it continues.
In order for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to downlist panthers, they need to establish three separate populations of at least 200 individuals each. And we’ve only got one, and that’s Big Cypress. That population may be around 200. But they would need two other population hot spots. And the service is not going to transplant them. They need to find their way on their own. So it’s encouraging that some have moved north of the river. We hope they continue. And there’s where things like the wildlife corridor are going to be so important, in preserving and connecting those green spaces. They need a place to go, and panthers need a large range in order to survive.
You also oversee hunting. Can someone be both a hunter and also be a conservationist?
Hunters are the original conservationists. Ironically, without hunting, we wouldn’t have a lot of the wildlife species we have today. And it seems incongruous, but actually hunters play an important role in wildlife management. The purchase of hunting licenses and permits, the purchase of guns and ammunition, pays into wildlife and sport fish restoration programs. That is federal money that comes back into the state of Florida. So they pay into the conservation programs that benefit them as hunters, because it helps us with wildlife and habitat programs. The governor recently issued an executive order that reduces the price of certain licenses.
Can you discuss the difference between conservation and preservation?
Preservation would be, no take whatsoever. Think of a national park. They try to preserve the park. There’s no hunting. That’s a different management style. Conservation does allow for sustainable extractive use. It allows hunting, fishing and enjoyment of that resource. That’s a slightly different definition, but well-regulated hunting is sustainable. It’s a pastime that people have enjoyed since time immemorial. We used to have to do it. Now you don’t have to, but without hunters and fishermen, a lot of our habitats wouldn’t get preserved. A lot of the species would go away. A lot of the wild turkey and white-tailed deer, without regulated hunting, would have disappeared from the North American landscape.
Those efforts back in the early 1900s to regulate hunting and create these funds that help conserve our wild habitats, that’s gone a long way to have those species bounce back in a tremendous way. And millions of Americans treasure the time they spend out hunting and just enjoying nature. Hunters and fishermen get out before the sun even cracks the horizon, and they’re there when the world wakes up. It’s just the enjoyment of hearing things start to move around and birds start to sing—there’s so much to be said about that. There’s this suggestion that there’s a nature deficit disorder that’s happening with America’s youth—and adults too—where we’ve lost that connection with nature, and hunting and fishing helps us maintain than connection and appreciation for that wild world. Because as the world goes, so do we.