EarthTalk: What’s the story with the
Florida Panther these days? Is it still teetering on the
brink of extinction, or is it on the rebound?
-- Alex T., via email
than 100 Florida Panthers are alive in the wild today,
hanging on in the southern tip of Florida. The big
cats were hunted to near extinction by the mid-1950s.
Today, primary threats are habitat loss and fragmentation,
driven by human population growth, which has tripled
in Florida since the animals were declared endangered
© Monica R., courtesy Flickr
of more than 20 subspecies of cougar and native to the southeastern
United States, the Florida Panther is most certainly still
highly endangered. Biologists estimate that less than 100
of the animals are alive in the wild today, hanging on in
the southern tip of Florida below the Caloosahatchee River.
Their current range represents less than five percent of
where they originally roamed across Florida, Louisiana,
Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and parts of Tennessee
and South Carolina.
as a threat to humans, livestock and game animals, the Florida
Panther was persecuted and hunted to near extinction by
the mid-1950s. Today, primary threats are habitat loss and
fragmentation as a result of human development. According
to Defenders of Wildlife, the main culprits in the decline
of the animals’ numbers are: urban sprawl; the conversion
of once diversified agricultural lands into intensified
industrial farming uses; and the loss of farmland to commercial
development. Other factors include collisions with automobiles,
territorial disputes with other panthers as habitat shrinks,
and inbreeding resulting from their isolated population.
Additional threats include mercury poisoning from the fallout
of coal-fired power plants, parasites, and diseases such
as feline leukemia and feline distemper.
to help the Florida Panther recover have had limited success.
Many public agencies and nonprofit groups have worked together
to try to bring back the panther—Florida’s state
animal—since it was first listed as endangered by
the federal government back in 1967. According to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), panthers require large
areas of contiguous habitat: Each breeding unit of one male
and two to five females requires some 200 square miles of
territory to thrive. Biologists report that a population
of 240 panthers requires between 8,000 and 12,000 square
miles of habitat and sufficient genetic diversity in order
to avoid inbreeding as a result of small population size.
The introduction of eight female cougars from a closely
related Texas population in 1995 helped mitigate inbreeding
problems, but most analysts fear that the effort was too
little, too late for the threatened cats.
the animals were first listed as endangered, the human population
of Florida has more than tripled, meaning that rescue efforts
are swimming against the tide. Defenders of Wildlife reports
that, since 2004, human-panther encounters have been on
the rise, as have documented instances of panthers preying
on livestock and pets. In response, the USFWS, the National
Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission have drafted a landmark Florida Panther Response
Plan, which guides game managers and law enforcement officials
in handling such interactions in ways that ensure public
safety while recognizing the need to preserve dwindling
Florida Panther populations.
can help by getting educated about the plight of the big
cats and pressuring their elected officials to take action.
Another way to help is by supporting wildlife groups working
on the issue. Defenders of Wildlife’s “Adopt
a Panther” program, for one, puts donations into public
education, preserving habitat and promoting sound transportation
planning to prevent panther deaths on Florida’s roads
of Wildlife; USFWS;
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
EarthTalk: I’d like to know the relative
electricity cost of utility scale solar and wind plants
versus rooftop residential solar. In other words, how can
I know whether to subsidize my utility’s alternative
energy plant or renovate my own home?
-- Randy Wilson, Flagstaff, AZ
federal Investment Tax Credit was expanded and extended
(through 2016) this year, allowing for 30 percent
of the cost of a home renewable energy system to be
deducted from your federal tax bill. Pictured: A home
rooftop solar installation in progress.
© ATIS547, courtesy Flickr
Making such a
determination is complex, but you could start with “In
My Backyard,” a new online tool by the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory (NREL). You first need to know your electricity
usage and what size solar photovoltaic (PV) system or wind
turbine you could install. Then, using Google Earth maps
and data on the amounts of sunshine and wind at your location,
the tool will estimate the electricity you could get from
a certain size wind turbine or PV array installed on your
The costs to
install renewable energy systems vary greatly by location,
warn researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
which is supported by the Department of Energy (DOE). And
kilowatt hour (kWh) costs vary by utility, as do state and
local financial incentives. One piece of good news: The
federal Investment Tax Credit was expanded and extended
this year. It allows for 30 percent of the cost of your
system to be deducted from your federal tax bill, and is
good through 2016.
cost of going it alone to that of simply buying green power
through your utility is not a simple equation, either. You
can support your utility’s renewable power infrastructure
by paying a premium on your electric bill, or you can buy
renewable energy certificates—also known as green
tags—even if your utility does not offer green power
(green tags inject renewable energies into the grid even
if they don’t come back to you via your own utility).
To decide which equation is better for you, compare the
costs of those programs over the same time period with the
cost of building and maintaining your own system (minus
any installation credits and/or revenues from selling your
excess electricity back to the utility). That would give
you the relative costs and return-on-investment.
still not the whole picture: Another question is whether
your home system can continue to produce energy more cost-effectively
than your utility, as it brings more and more green energy
sources into its mix. Lawrence Berkeley says no, essentially.
A February 2009 report summarizing the costs of PV from
1998 to 2007 concluded that larger systems averaged a 25
percent lower cost than the smallest ones.
The same is true
for wind power, says the American Wind Energy Association.
The group’s February 2005 report calculates that a
large wind farm can deliver electricity at a nearly 40 percent
lower cost than a small one. It also can take advantage
of economies of scale in lower operational and maintenance
The bottom line
is this: Decades ago, when widespread use of alternative
energy was still only a dream, building one’s own
private source of home power was the only way to get off
the carbon-intense grid and ensure that your own energy
needs left little footprint. But today, with considerably
more renewable energy sources coming online or about to
do so in quantum leap measures—and at much greater
efficiencies than can be achieved privately—the best
bet may well be to forego the go-it alone path and support
your utility’s efforts to generate green power not
just for your own household but for everyone.
“In My Backyard”; DOE
Green Power Network.
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