Saturday, April 04, 2009

Protect Florida panther habitat from development

By Andrew McElwaine
April 5, 2009

The Florida panther is one of the most endangered animals on Earth, with only 80 to 100 remaining. Even though the Florida panther is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, it is quickly losing habitat. In 2008, a record number of panthers were killed or found dead, and in just the first month of 2009, three panthers were killed by cars.

Attempts to relocate the panthers to other geographic areas have been met with resistance, making protection of its existing habitat even more crucial. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report underscored this point. The agency outlined a panther recovery plan that called for safeguarding the panther's habitat. Yet, FWS has not yet designated critical habitat for this imperiled animal.

Unfortunately, the Florida panther was added to the endangered species list before federal law required designation of critical habitat areas. In other words, the panther was protected, but its habitat was not. Now, that habitat is rapidly shrinking.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit environmental group, is trying to change that. The conservancy recently filed a legal petition with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that calls for using the best available science accepted and utilized by the FWS in designating critical habitat for the panther, providing additional review and protections of such habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition is more important and timely than ever, given proposed development in eastern Collier County, which includes a large portion of the panther's primary habitat. Developers are proposing a 3,699-acre development called Town of Big Cypress, despite scientific data that the proposed site is in an area essential to maintaining the current population of critically endangered Florida panthers. If the federal government approves our objection for critical habitat designation, it would ensure that projects like the Town of Big Cypress in this essential habitat area receive additional review to ensure they do not jeopardize the panther with extinction.

It's important to note that Florida panthers are an "umbrella species" — meaning the loss of their habitat is the loss of habitat important to numerous other imperiled species, as well as lands critical to preserving water quality and drinking water supply.

Time is of the essence. To join the conservancy in protecting Florida panther habitat, write President Barack Obama and your congressmen. Or visit www.conservancy.org and click on "Take Action." Together we can protect the most endangered species in the eastern United States.

Andrew McElwaine is president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/opinion/sfl-panthersforum05pnapr05,0,6189598.story

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