Special from the Naples Daily News by Eric Staats:
Neither ranchers nor researchers knew what to expect when they kicked off a two-year study last year to try to figure out how often Florida panthers are attacking newborn calves around Immokalee.
A report on the first year of the study is putting some hard numbers to the problem, for the first time, and is revealing some surprises, they say.
"I think we have a good handle on what happened," said University of Florida graduate student Caitlin Jacobs, who conducted the study with the help of ranchers.
Getting to the bottom of the problem of panthers preying on cattle herds looms large because private landowners' cooperation is key to the survival of a rebounding population of the endangered species that's running out of room in Southwest Florida.
The study is helping guide the development of a possible program to compensate ranchers for calf losses, either paying ranchers per killed animal or paying a so-called "ecosystem services" fee to reward ranchers for the environmental benefit of their land.
Scientists estimate that as many as 160 panthers live in the wild, up from as few as 30. A recovery plan calls for establishing new panther populations in other parts of Florida, raising concerns about conflicts between panthers and humans elsewhere.
The study tagged 98 calves at the JB Ranch and 108 calves at the Immokalee Ranch with ear transmitters that allowed researchers to keep track of the calves during calving season from September 2011 to April 2012.