Friday, October 30, 2009

Florida: Scientists recommend improvements after reviewing Panther protection plan for eastern Collier

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

COLLIER COUNTY — A team of scientists is calling for improvements to a plan to protect the endangered Florida panther in eastern Collier County.

In an 80-page report — chock full of number-crunching tables, aerial images and detailed maps — the scientists issue a ground-breaking overview of what could become the plan by which panthers either stay or disappear in the heart of what is left of their habitat.

The report strikes a careful bottom line: A 2008 proposal by a coalition of environmental groups and farmers and ranchers to guide growth across almost 200,000 acres around Immokalee “would represent an enhancement of panther conservation” over existing controls, the report states.

“The conservation value to panthers would increase,” even more if a long list of recommendations by the science review team is added to the plan.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that growth in eastern Collier County has the potential to cut into habitat for the panther, and that “does not aid panther recovery,” the report concludes.

“In an ideal world, obviously, we wouldn’t have any development in panther habitat,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service panther recovery coordinator Chris Belden, a member of the science review team.

The report also recommends that a proposed new Interstate 75 interchange at either Everglades Boulevard or two miles east, between the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Desoto Boulevard, “receive no further consideration” because of its impact to panther habitat.

The interchange is not part of the 2008 plan, which builds on a landmark rural growth plan adopted by Collier County in 2002.

The 2002 plan, which is voluntary, allows landowners across almost 200,000 acres around Immokalee to preserve natural land in return for credits to develop on less sensitive land.

The Florida Panther Protection Plan would award credits for preservation of agricultural land, create two panther travel corridors, cap development at 45,000 acres and require additional mitigation under the federal permitting program for development in panther habitat.

The plan also proposed new fees on mitigation credits and real estate sales in eastern Collier County that would raise an estimated $150 million to buy panther habitat for preservation and to pay for habitat restoration and wildlife crossings.

The number of wild panthers had dwindled to around 30 before scientists released eight female Texas cougars into South Florida to restore the population’s genetic diversity.

Now, scientists estimate between 100 and 120 panthers roam across less than 5 percent of its historic range, mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River.

Scientists say habitat loss continues to threaten the survival of the panther, including in eastern Collier County, where the 2002 plan laid the groundwork for the new town of Ave Maria and Ave Maria University. A second new town, called Big Cypress, and an earthmine also are on the drawing board.

The coalition that hand-picked the six scientists to answer the question of whether the plan would benefit the Florida panther issued an upbeat assessment of the science review.

“The PRT (Panther Review Team) unequivocally and unanimously responded in the affirmative,” the statement says.

Other members of the review team besides Belden were senior scientist Randy Kautz and vice president Tom Logan, with consultants Breedlove, Dennis and Associates in Tallahassee; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land; Conservancy of Southwest Florida biologist David Shindle; and University of Central Florida research associate Daniel Smith.

As for the recommendations to improve the plan, the coalition will carefully consider whether they are feasible in light of other issues the review team did not tackle, including private property rights and economic viability, the statement says.

The Florida Panther Protection Plan coalition includes Audubon of Florida, Collier County Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Federation and landowners Alico Land Development Corp., Barron Collier Partnership, Collier Enterprises, Consolidated Citrus LP, English Brothers, Half Circle L Ranch Partnership, Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. and Sunniland Family Limited Partnership.

The science review team’s recommendations would bring the plan “very close” to a proposal put forth by the Conservancy, which has been critical of the coalition’s plan, Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said.

“The concern I have going forward is there not be an effort to cherry pick the recommendations but that they go forward as a bloc,” McElwaine said.

The federal permitting mechanism that would put the plan into action will require further review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including public input.

Collier County also will have to adopt changes to its 2002 plan, which will require a sign-off from the state Department of Community Affairs.

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