Commission: We shouldn't bear Florida panther burden alone
Federal government urged to pick up more of the cost of ensuring survival for the 80 to 100 big cats remaining in Southwest Florida
By Jeremy Cox
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
One Collier County commissioner compared Florida panthers with dinosaurs.
Another blamed the federal government’s labor-intensive panther review process for scuttling a proposal to bring a cargo airplane distributor to Immokalee Regional Airport.
Still, those commissioners and others, who preside over a county that is one of the last bastions for the endangered cats, acknowledged Tuesday that the county should do more to protect the ailing species.
But the county shouldn’t have to do it alone, they suggested during a special meeting with the acting head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida office, based more than 215 miles away in Vero Beach.
Commissioners called on Fish and Wildlife and other federal agencies to pick up a larger share of the tab.
That would ease the burden on developers who pay millions of dollars to carve up panther habitat into subdivisions and shopping areas. Not to mention 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.
Paul Souza, Fish and Wildlife’s deputy regional director, rebuffed the commission’s stated goal of moving the panther consultation boundary several miles east of its present location.
But he vowed to meet with county reviewers in October to discuss projects that could rise from Collier’s soil in the next 10 years. Souza said he will return in December to share the results of those meetings.
Proposals that fall in the consultation area’s boundaries must be reviewed for impacts to panthers. 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.
Scientists created that line based on panthers’ historic travels, Souza said, and it cannot be changed unilaterally by a political entity. The agency, though, is willing to reconsider the line’s relocation if scientific evidence backs it up, he added.
Commissioner Fred Coyle called the panther review method “fundamentally flawed.”
Tuesday’s meeting grew out of a $275,000 bill the county had to pay this year to satisfy Fish and Wildlife’s mitigation requirement for the expansion of Santa Barbara Boulevard. The road bisects golf communities and mid-priced apartments just south of the densely populated Golden Gate area.
“We have to develop a boundary based on realistic expectations of where we think panthers are going to live and breed. And I don’t think we’re going to see that on Santa Barbara Boulevard,” Coyle said.
A radio-collared panther trekked within about a half mile of Santa Barbara earlier this year, Souza said.
Coyle also questioned the wisdom of curtailing development and forcing builders to pay millions of dollars for the sake of a single species. The commissioner pointed out that a fleet-footed dinosaur called the velociraptor once roamed the Earth — and the “Jurassic Park” film series, for that matter — and the planet doesn’t seem to have suffered without it.
Although panthers are in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs, their numbers are growing in Southwest Florida, Souza noted. A mid-1990s breeding program that introduced eight female Texas cougars into the panther gene pool has boosted the population from two or three dozen to between 80 and 100 big cats.
The surge means more panthers are clawing at the edges of their existing territory, Souza said. Nine panthers, or 10 percent of the remaining cats, have been struck and killed by vehicles across the state this year. Since 2000, three panthers have died in vehicle collisions on Collier Boulevard, which is a mile west of the county’s urban boundary line and two miles east of Santa Barbara.
County transportation officials have suggested relocating the panther consultation line along that urban barrier.
The panther consultation area interferes with private enterprise, several commissioners said.
Commissioners Frank Halas and Jim Coletta said Fish and Wildlife’s lengthy review of a proposed plane-finishing operation at the Immokalee airport killed the deal. For several years, Naples-based Skytruck Co. LLC had been trying to lure a Polish-manufacturer to fly planes to Immokalee airport in their “green” state for finishing.
Souza said that although the airport is fenced in, the business would have attracted more traffic onto Immokalee Road, where several panthers have been killed in recent years.
Despite his misgivings about the species’ ecological significance, Coyle said he hoped the county would write a list of panther-specific development rules soon.
A commissioner-appointed committee has been toiling for two years on a new program that would allow developers to destroy endangered and threatened species’ habitat in return for protecting habitat somewhere else. Supporters say the habitat plan would streamline development approvals in return for regional conservation, replacing a system based on project-by-project reviews that often result in piecemeal conservation.
Coletta urged the federal government to step up.
“Don’t you agree the panther is a national treasure? So why does my county have to bear the cost?” he asked.
Souza said the key to maintaining a stable panther population is working with private landowners to set aside easements or sell their land in critical habitat areas. The government also is looking into reintroducing panthers to other parts of their historic range, including Central Florida and Southeastern states.
Brad Cornell of the Collier Audubon Society, who attended the meeting, said he was heartened to hear county and federal officials express the same desire to see the species grow.
“I think the main point to take away from this is that it’s a two-way street,” Cornell said after the meeting. “I hope this all sets the stage for understanding and urgency.”