Some question Fish and Wildlife’s decision, say agency’s own reports indicate the cats need more space
By Jeremy Cox
Monday, December 18, 2006
New roads, homes and mines are now eligible to move into an area the size of Rhode Island across South Florida without encountering federal regulations used to protect Florida panthers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service redrew the panther's habitat boundary earlier this month after developers and Collier County leaders complained that the old line was outdated. The tightened boundary reflects leaps forward in science and provides a more accurate picture of where panthers live, said Paul Souza, head of Fish and Wildlife's office in Vero Beach.
"We did our best to capture where panthers are found," Souza said. "It's not an artifact of what existed 20 years ago; it's what actually exists."
But some panther advocates question why Fish and Wildlife would shrink the "consultation area" at a time when the agency's own reports indicate the big cats need more space. The new borders encompass about 3.8 million acres, down nearly 890,000 acres from the previous map.
"That's suitable range for at least another dozen animals," said Stephen Williams, founder of the Florida Panther Society. "I don't understand it."
The borders reach into 15 counties from just north of Lake Okeechobee to the tip of the peninsula. The area of protection extends farther north than before, stretching into Sarasota County and deeper into Highlands County.
In Collier County, where many of the nearly 100 remaining panthers roam, the border now runs along Collier Boulevard. The line used to follow Interstate 75 through most of the county but reached as far west as the heavily commercialized southern end of Airport-Pulling Road.
The line's location became a flash point when Collier commissioners learned the county would have to pay $275,000 in panther mitigation for widening Santa Barbara Boulevard. Suburbs replaced the wilderness in that region years ago, commissioners grumbled.
The commission's recommendation: move the panther boundary one mile east of Collier Boulevard to correspond with the county's urban fringe line and the western border of Picayune Strand State Forest. Several projects are in line to sprout along the east side of Collier Boulevard, including a Toll Brothers golf course community.
A radio-collared panther had wandered within a half-mile of Santa Barbara earlier this year, Souza told the County Commission in September. Yet, he vowed at that meeting to review the consultation line with his agency and return with findings this month.
Souza was to update commissioners on the consultation line's relocation at the commission meeting last week, but he canceled due to an illness. The meeting has been rescheduled for Feb. 13.
The Collier Boulevard border eliminates Golden Gate, East Naples and the Lely area from future federal oversight. North of I-75 and the environmentally sensitive North Belle Meade region, the border jogs to the east to carve Golden Gate Estates out of the consultation area.
"I think that makes practical sense," said Brad Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society.
With a wave of incidents this year in which panthers have attacked livestock and pets, public opinion appears to be tilting out of favor with the sleek predator. In other words, this isn't the time to fight over preserving habitat in growth hot-spots, Cornell said.
"The panther has enough of a bull's eye on it as it is," he said.
Also off the new map: eastern Bonita Springs. The line that used to run along I-75 has now been pushed to the city's eastern limit. To the north, the panther map still surrounds Florida Gulf Coast University on three sides — north, south and east — but Lehigh Acres is excluded.
"It does really make sense that we've moved (the line) east," said Larry Richardson, a biologist with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near I-75 and State Road 29. "We don't have the cats using the areas that they used to use to the west. That's the product of us moving in."
As people continue moving deeper into the wilderness, the number of panther encounters will grow until the big cats catch on to the change in circumstances, Richardson said.
But the line shouldn't shift just because development is marching eastward in fast-growing Lee and Collier counties, said Elizabeth Fleming of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. The new boundary also leaves out some areas surrounded by known panther tromping grounds.
"It leaves out Immokalee and the Golden Gate Estates area," she said. "Panthers are there so any development that is put in there will impact panthers."
The panther's story over the past two centuries has been one of displacement and persecution. The Florida panther is the only cougar living east of the Mississippi River. The cats once ventured as far north and west as Arkansas, but most of their descendants have been driven into a final stronghold on 2.5 million acres in Southwest Florida.
Frontiersmen shot panthers to protect their cattle. The species was fair game for hunters in Florida into the 1950s. A decade later, the panther became one of the first creatures to be placed on the federal endangered species list.
Despite the protective measures, panther numbers dwindled to fewer than 30 by the 1980s. The appearance of genetic problems such as kinked tails, heart defects and males born without testicles prompted scientists to take action. Those scientists credit the introduction of eight female Texas cougars in the mid-1990s and the construction of wildlife underpasses on I-75 with tripling the panther population.
Now, panthers' biggest enemy is development.
Conserving existing habitat and expanding it northward were the main-stated priorities of a panther recovery plan issued by Fish and Wildlife in January. The plan called for at least 480 panthers — in two populations of 240 — to be established before the species could be knocked down from the ranks of the endangered to merely threatened.
If no further development were to encroach on the panther's 2.5 million acres south of the Caloosahatchee River — more than one-third of the panther's habitat is in private or tribal hands — there is enough room to accommodate up to 94 panthers, scientists estimate.
A population that size will be "barely viable" and require biologists to bring in two female cougars once a decade to ward off inbreeding, according to a study published this year.
Federal scientists used that study, dubbed "How Much is Enough?" and led by former state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Randy Kautz, to provide scientific backing for relocating the consultation line.
The study redrew the boundaries of where panthers were thought to live by analyzing nearly 50,000 records from panther radio collars between 1981 and 2001. Kautz also looked at what kinds of natural cover remained across South Florida.
Souza alerted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 8 of the consultation line change. If the corps determines a new development "may impact" a protected creature, it asks the federal Fish and Wildlife agency to review the project as well.
The wildlife agency can issue a "jeopardy opinion" to put the brakes on developments that biologists believe will put the future of the species at risk, but it has never done so for panthers.
So, does it really matter whether the panther consultation boundary is moved from one spot to another?
"I don't think either of the two lines will create new powers to stop development," state Fish and Wildlife biologist Darrell Land said.