Balancing carnivore conservation and sustainable hunting of a key prey species: a case study on the Florida panther and white-tailed deer.
Large carnivore restoration programs are often promoted as capable of providing ecosystem services. However, these programs rarely measure effects of successful restoration on other economically and ecologically important species. In South Florida, while the endangered Florida panther Puma concolor coryi population has increased in recent years due to conservation efforts, the population of its main prey, the white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus, has declined in some regions. The extent to which panther predation has affected deer populations has been difficult to assess because several other factors have changed during this period, including hydrology and hunting regulations. We collected known-fate survival data on 241 GPS-collared adult deer (156 females and 85 males) from 2015 to 2018 in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, USA, to assess effects of panther predation on the deer population, while also evaluating the impacts of hunting and hydrology. Predation was the primary cause of death (110 of 134 mortalities), and 87% of predation events were attributed to panthers, a much greater rate than reported by studies conducted before the panther genetic restoration effort initiated in 1995. One deer was legally harvested, and two were likely killed by poachers. Increasing water depth decreased female survival but had little impact on male survival, and drowning was never a cause of mortality. Females had greater survival probability than males, except during fawning season. From 2015 to 2018, annual survival rates increased from 0.61 (0.52-0.70) to 0.86 (0.79-0.91) for females, and from 0.45 (95% CI: 0.33-0.58) to 0.79 (0.69-0.86) for males. Synthesis and applications. High predation rates, coupled with previous evidence of low recruitment of deer in South Florida, suggest that it will be challenging to meet society's competing demands for large predator restoration and sustainable deer harvest. Deer hunting in the area must remain tightly controlled, for now, if it is to be sustainable, and managers should seek to mitigate effects of high waters and improve deer habitat quality to increase deer population viability. Future work should closely monitor the deer population to assess if management actions can increase vital rates and abundance in the context of high predation rates.