By Jeremy Cox
Thursday, September 21, 2006
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are having “internal discussions” about whether the Florida panther consultation line should be relocated to better represent the movements of big cats, an agency official said Wednesday.
Allen Webb, Fish and Wildlife’s project planning supervisor in Vero Beach, said pressure from the Collier County Commission and other groups prompted the preliminary review.
“Whether we would relocate (the line), we don’t have an answer yet,” Webb said.
Commissioners asked the acting head of the Vero Beach office Tuesday to move the line to reflect the changing face of Collier County.
Proposals that fall in the consultation area’s boundaries must be reviewed for impacts to panthers, one of the most endangered species on the planet. The line follows Interstate 75 through most of the county but reaches as far west as the heavily commercialized southern end of Airport-Pulling Road.
Relocating the line would ease the burden on developers who pay millions of dollars to carve up panther habitat into subdivisions and shopping areas. The action also would benefit county residents, who pay in the form of taxes that are used to mitigate the effect of new roads, schools and other infrastructure built in panther territory.
A $275,000 panther bill for the widening of Santa Barbara Boulevard in Golden Gate sparked the commission’s ire and led to Tuesday’s special meeting.
“It is true over time that places develop and places that were habitat are no longer habitat,” Souza said Wednesday. “I’ve certainly heard the county’s message.”
For that, Commissioner Donna Fiala is pleased.
“I’m delighted to hear they realize there’s an adjustment needed,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll change it to be more realistic.”
The county has set a line running parallel to Collier Boulevard and one mile east of the road as the urban boundary. County transportation officials have suggested that’s where the panther consultation line should go.
Science, not politics, will drive Fish and Wildlife’s review, which began weeks before Tuesday’s meeting, Webb said. The panther line was drawn in 2000 around a cloud of telemetry points collected over roughly two decades by radio collars, he said.
If that line was drawn in error, it will be changed, he said. But the agency’s development review system treats every applicant the same, whether the project is the first or last one to enter an environmentally sensitive area.
“A person may say how does my project affect the panther if I’m surrounded by development,” Webb said. “If the line is going through the middle of urban development, we would evaluate that to see if that historically is correct. But just because the line goes through an urban area doesn’t mean we would be moving the line.”
Souza offered Tuesday to meet with county staff in October to discuss projects expected to seek approval within the next decade and how they might impact panther habitat.
Nancy Payton, a Florida Wildlife Federation representative, said that federal reviewers need to become more familiar with Southwest Florida’s rapidly changing landscape.
“It’s a flawed line. It’s not science-driven. And that’s why it needs to be re-evaluated,” she said Wednesday, echoing several commissioners’ sentiments from the day before.
Panthers shouldn’t be shunted to the side, though, whenever developers want to take their place, said Elizabeth Fleming, the St. Petersburg-based Florida representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
“If you think about it, panther tracks have been found in downtown Naples — although it’s not ideal habitat, at one time it was,” she said. “Conceivably that could just keep going like a domino effect. I would have concerns if the line keeps shifting as development advances.”