By ERIC STAATS
9:22 p.m., Wednesday, December 17, 2008
NAPLES — A plan setting benchmarks to take the Florida panther off the endangered species list is set to be announced Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken years to finalize Thursday's plan, which changed little since the agency unveiled a draft plan in January 2006.
The big cat has been staging a precarious comeback from a toehold in Southwest Florida, but the plan envisions taking decades, if ever, to declare the panther back from the brink.
Scientists credit a program that transplanted eight female Texas cougars into the panther population with replenishing the gene pool and boosting the number of panthers from fewer than 30 in the 1970s to between 100 and 120 panthers Thursday.
Despite the progress, the panther continues to face an uphill climb to recovery because of threats from increasing human population and development in panther habitat, the recovery plan says.
"Working with our partners and the public is critical if we are to continue making strides toward recovering the Florida panther," Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Sam Hamilton said in a statement Wednesday.
The plan sticks to an earlier goal of having three "viable, self-sustaining" populations of panthers totaling 720 animals — a goal that will require reintroducing the panther across the southeastern United States.
New to the final plan is an interim goal of having at least 80 panthers in each of two unspecified reintroduction areas and not losing any ground in Florida.
The next step is to translate the 230-page recovery plan into more panthers in the wild, environmental advocates said Wednesday.
"We expect to be running with a lot of this," said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife is a member of a coalition of environmental groups and landowners in eastern Collier County that has its own plan for panthers roaming 200,000 acres around Immokalee.
The coalition has proposed the creation of panther travel corridors, a real estate fee to pay for restoring panther habitat and building wildlife crossings and a 25 percent increase in federal mitigation requirements for projects in the county's Rural Lands Stewardship Area.
A citizens review committee that has been meeting for the past year has recommended including the coalition's proposals in revisions to Collier County's landmark 2002 rural growth plan.
Landowners already have used the county plan to preserve environmentally sensitive areas in exchange for credits that have built the town of Ave Maria and laid the groundwork for another new town called Big Cypress.
Under the proposed revisions, landowners would be able to earn credits for development across 45,000 acres the federal recovery plan identifies as primary panther habitat.
The recovery plan acknowledges the need for "cooperation with private landowners, not only as willing sellers, but also as willing participants in conservation easements and other habitat management programs for the panther."
"Actions that emphasize cooperative efforts and landowner incentives, particularly those designed to discourage conversion of land to less suitable habitat, are important," the plan states.
A critic of the recommended revisions to the county's growth plan _ they say the plan will lead to overdevelopment _ said Wednesday that he is pleased with the recovery plan.
"This plan clearly reinforced to me the notion that we have to protect the primary (panther habitat) zone from development," Conservancy of Southwest Florida President Andrew McElwaine said.
A backer of the growth plan changes drew a distinction between the federal recovery plan and growth management.
The recovery plan is written largely by scientists to point the way to the "ultimate where we want to go," Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
"It has some lofty goals, but you've got to have a plan and that (the recovery plan) is it," Payton said.
Changes to Collier County's growth plan will put parts of the recovery plan into action, she said.
Payton said the county's plan has put a closer eye to how panthers use eastern Collier County than the "academic exercise" that established the county's rural area as primary panther habitat.
Creating corridors for panthers to travel between preserve areas in exchange for allowing development in primary panther habitat "may be a good trade-off," Payton said.
A panel of scientists, including some who had a hand in writing the federal recovery plan, is reviewing the coalition's plan.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org