South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 24, 2009
Hoping the Obama administration proves friendlier to wildlife than its predecessor, a conservation group has filed a legal petition to protect more than 3 million acres for the Florida panther.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, based in Naples, waited one day after the inauguration to submit a 43-page document requesting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designate a vast swath of South Florida as critical habitat for the endangered cats. The land runs from the western fringes of Broward and Palm Beach counties through the cattle ranches and agricultural lands southwest of Lake Okeechobee to the edges of suburban Naples and Fort Myers.
Although about two thirds of it already has protection as national parks, refuges or other government land, it includes extensive private lands that could be developed.
"We think we're on stronger ground with the new administration," said Andrew McElwaine, president of the 6,000-member environmental group. "With the Bush administration, we've been dealing with people focused on ideology, rather than science."
Once ranging across the southeastern United States, the panther has been reduced to a single stronghold in the swamps, forests and ranch lands of southern Florida. Intensive conservation work has arrested the species' decline, and the panther population has risen from 20 or 30 in the 1970s to 100 or so today. But scientists and environmentalists say the population remains far too low to be stable, and needs more land.
"After 41 years on the endangered species list without recovery, when threats to habitat deemed essential to its survival are growing daily, the Florida panther is in dire need of this long-overdue step for conservation of the species," the petition states.
The proposed area includes levees in Broward and Palm Beach counties used by young male panthers looking for territory not occupied by dangerous older males, said Darrell Land, a state biologist. Radio-collared panthers, feeding on the abundant deer of the eastern Everglades, have been tracked as far east as U.S. 27.
A critical habitat designation would make it harder for builders to win approval for construction projects, roads or other alterations to the land. McElwaine said it is a necessary step because the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have approved far too many residential and commercial developments in panther habitat in Collier and Hendry counties. Of particular concern, he said, is Collier Enterprises' proposal for a 9,000-home development called the Town of Big Cypress.
Tom Flood, chief executive officer of Collier Enterprises, said through a spokeswoman that the company is participating in a cooperative effort with environmental groups to create wildlife corridors and conservation incentives for landowners. If the critical habitat proposal meshes with their work, he could support it, if not, he would oppose it.
Under the Bush administration, the Interior Department, which oversees wildlife protection, saw a series of scandals involving the influence of industry over policy decisions. Obama appointed Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to lead the department, and this week he told employees, "I pledge to you that we will ensure the Interior Department's decisions are based on sound science and the public interest, and not on the special interests."
Paul Souza, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he has not yet seen the petition. But he said the service previously made a decision to not designate critical habitat for the panther so it could devote resources to species protection programs, such as building overpasses to reduce road-kills, assembling tracts of panther habitat to protect and conducting scientific research.
Do you think you know our state animal? Learn more about the Florida panther and its habitat at SunSentinel.com/panther
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org