unprovoked FL panther attack?

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unprovoked FL panther attack?

Postby Emily » Mon Apr 28, 2014 1:08 pm

From the (Palm Beach) Florida SunSentinel
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/palm-b ... 5405.story

State reports unprovoked bear, panther attacks

By David Fleshler, Sun Sentinel

1:30 a.m. EDT, April 27, 2014

The large, hairy predator struck fast, left a few claw wounds and was gone.

As Byron Maharrey of central Palm Beach County stalked wild turkey near Lake Kissimmee, he felt something hit him on the back.

"He knocked me over," he said. "He immediately turned straight and ran. From his tawny color and his long tail, I could tell it was a Florida panther. Guessing 80 to 100 pounds."

The March 17 attack left him with puncture wounds to his thigh, a 4-inch gash on his arm and an unusual status as the first victim of a suspected Florida panther attack since the 1800s.

For decades authorities have said that panthers and black bears in Florida have never made an unprovoked attack on a human being, at least in modern times. But in 2012 a bear bit a Seminole County woman who was walking her dog, and in the past few months, the state has seen two more bear attacks and a possible panther attack.

"The amount of conflict we're having between wildlife and people is going up," said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Both populations of bears and panthers are up in Florida, and we think that's a good thing, not a bad thing. And of course we've had an increase in people. We need to work with people and get them prepared for panthers in areas that haven't seen panthers for maybe the past 100 years."

The number of black bears in Florida has increased from a low of 500 in the 1950s to more than 3,000 today. The two recent attacks took place in Seminole County neighborhoods on the fringes of bear habitat. Susan Chalfant, 54, was attacked Dec. 2 while walking two small dogs, suffering bite wounds to her face, head and neck. On April 12 Terri Frana, 44, discovered bears going through her garbage. One of them knocked her down and bit and clawed her on her head, arm, leg and back.
Photos: Things to do before it gets too hot

The FWC killed seven bears in the neighborhood, saying they had become accustomed to obtaining food from garbage. Protesters accused the agency of punishing bears for the errors of people, but others say the agency had no good options.

"I regret deeply that seven bears were killed, but I would not second-guess the FWC," said Charles Lee, advocacy director of Audubon of Florida. "You are not doing a bear a favor by giving it food; you are handing that bear a death sentence.''

For years hunters have tried to overturn Florida's 1994 ban on bear hunting. A new call for hunting came this month when a dozen state legislators, including state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, signed a letter to the FWC calling for an educational program for residents, more bear-proof trash containers and "select hunts in the hot spot areas."

But FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron of Weston, an outdoorsman with vast experience with Florida's wildlife, opposes the idea.

"I don't feel the problem that we have here is due to overpopulation," he said. "I would hate to see a reaction to these incidents that I feel has a lot to do with garbage and bears coming to get an easy meal than we knee-jerk into overpopulation and possibly hunting."

Frohlich said the agency's main focus with bears and panthers involves educating the public on securing garbage, not providing handouts and what to do if you encounter a large predator.

South Florida's population of bears and panthers is concentrated in Big Cypress National Preserve and adjacent lands. Both species venture into Broward and Palm Beach counties, with panthers sticking largely to levees that keep them above the sawgrass. Visits by bears to residential neighborhoods – which have taken place in Weston and west of Boynton Beach – are so rare they receive extensive press coverage.

Although the panther's prospects of survival remain far shakier than the bears, the endangered cats have also seen their numbers surge from a low of as little as 30 in the 1970s to as many as 160 today.

Wildlife officials say attacks are highly unlikely, since the species tends to avoid people and does not regard people as a prey, preferring deer, wild hogs and small mammals. But they don't dismiss the possibility and have relocated panthers that frequent residential neighborhoods.

While Maharrey's panther attack remains unconfirmed because it was reported too late for evidence to be obtained from the scene or from his wounds, he is a veteran hunter whose account was taken seriously by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Maharrey considers his encounter with a panther a case of mistaken identity. The panther approached from a direction from which it could not catch his scent, and as soon as the panther was on him, it sprang off and ran away, apparently realizing that he was neither a turkey nor a deer. Although he favors a limited bear hunt, he says panthers should remain off limits to hunters.

"I think it's something we have to live with," Maharrey said. "I've been back twice and nothing happened. They haven't had any reported cases since the 1800s. As for the panthers, I say live and let live."

dfleshler@tribune.com, 954-356-4535

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