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As for the various laws that seem to dedicate panther money exclusively to panthers, Morrell points out that the legislature has drafted appropriations bills each of the past two years to override those legal restrictions. "It's not a misuse of funds, it's just confusing," he says, noting that a "glitch bill" to amend the original laws is now wiggling its way through the legislature.
Dr. Bernard Yokel, president emeritus of the Florida Audubon Society and a member of the game commission grant council, says Morrell is right in his interpretation, but acknowledges there may be a disjunction between what people think the panther plate money goes for and where it actually winds up. "I think you need a broad-based program," he says, "but I agree fully that it ought to be more accountable to the public, in the sense that the public ought to know better what that money is being spent for."
Peter Gallagher, the newest member of the technical advisory council, insists the public wants the money spent on panthers. "Creating the license plate program was a tremendous thing," he says. "But to run the money through this committee -- that's essentially a close-knit club -- and then spend millions of dollars on projects that have no direct benefit for the panther, that's outrageous."
Gallagher argues that all panther tag money should go to purchase land, provide conservation easements, and assist other progressive panther-habitat preservation projects. "We don't need any more surveys; we don't need any little booklets to give out to school kids around the state," he says. "At this point in the history of the panther, it's clearly on the brink or even falling off the cliff of extinction."
David Maehr concurs. Maehr, a professor at the University of Kentucky, spent nine years doing field research on panthers in southwest Florida and wrote a book called The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore.
"If we take everything there is to know about panthers, what's the bottom-line problem? It's space," he says. "How can two swamp buggies or volunteers watching right whales or funding staff positions in Tallahassee help that problem?