Friday, December 8, 2006
Florida panthers are being pushed farther east in Collier County, and now so is the boundary that federal reviewers use to determine whether a proposed development falls in their habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for protecting panthers and other creatures that face extinction, announced the change today.
The line once followed Interstate 75 through most of the county but reached as far west as the heavily commercialized southern end of Airport-Pulling Road. The panther consultation line now runs along Collier Boulevard, eliminating Golden Gate, East Naples and the Lely area from future federal oversight.
Paul Souza, head of Fish and Wildlife's South Florida office, said the decision was based on three studies, all published since 2003, that shed more light on where panthers roam.
"We did our best to capture where panthers are found," Souza said, adding that the previous map was drawn using panther sightings up to two decades old. "It's not an artifact of what existed 20 years ago _ it's what actually exists."
Fish and Wildlife scientists took up the issue after Collier County commissioners argued in September that the line should be relocated to the county's urban boundary, one mile east of Collier Boulevard. The debate 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 new map also eliminates sugar-dominated northeastern Hendry County from undergoing panther reviews in the future. The territory expands farther north than before into Highlands and Okeechobee counties, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, and into Sarasota County for the first time. The map also trims out a portion of western Broward County south of Interstate 75, an area already protected against development to trap water for southeast Florida's drinking supply.
Brad Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society said the agency's decision makes sense.
"We should be focusing our efforts on protecting panther habitat in the rural part of the county, which is east of (Collier Boulevard)," he said.