If you like your conservation efforts served with a nice dusting of irony, consider what’s happening at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples, Fla. Workers there are about to start tearing down dense stands of the official Florida state tree, the cabbage palm, in order to benefit the official state animal, the endangered Florida panther, that lives in the refuge.

Refuge wildlife biologist Larry Richardson acknowledges that he hears from people who are confused about the project. But the fact is that the cabbage palms have grown so thick in places on the refuge that they are crowding out other plants that are necessary food for deer. That means the deer move on to find better feeding areas, and the panthers are deprived of the deer they need to prey on.

So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, hired Wildland Services, Inc., of Moore Haven, Fla., to cut down the invasive cabbage palms on more than 1,700 acres inside the refuge. The $171,000 contract is being funded by money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as stimulus funds.

"The construction of canals over the last century for flood control has altered the balance of nature," Richardson explains. "They channel water away from the refuge to the Gulf of Mexico and prevent the summer rains from recharging the aquifer. And the palms have invaded the open pine habitats and wet prairies due to these man-made changes."

In the 20 years Richardson has been working on the refuge, he has seen grassy prairies gradually taken over by palms. Cabbage palms have formed dense, nearly impenetrable stands, shading out forage plants for deer. Thousands of acres of the refuge have been degraded by this cabbage palm invasion.

The thick stands of cabbage palms also make the land undesirable for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, another resident of the refuge.

Wildland Services will use crews and equipment to cut cabbage palms over six feet tall. Smaller palms will be eliminated with herbicides as more funding becomes available. Minimal ground disturbance is a requirement of the contract to prevent invasion by non-native plants such as Brazilian pepper and protect the native grasses and low-growing plants.

Darrel Land, Panther Section Leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is pleased with the restoration that has already occurred on 2,500 acres of pinelands along the eastern boundary of the refuge. 

"The restoration so far has greatly benefited panthers by improving habitat for deer, the panthers' primary prey," Land says.

There are only about 80 to 100 wild adult panthers remaining in south Florida. The animal once ranged through most of the southeastern United States, but was eliminated down to a surviving handful by human persecution and habitat destruction. By 1995, only 20 to 30 Florida panthers remained in the wild. The animals, which are tawny or brown with cream markings, rather than black as commonly believed, are elusive and try to stay away from humans as much as possible.

Phil Kloer is a public affairs specialist for the Southeastern region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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