Monday, December 28, 2009

Mine expansion proposed in Florida panther habitat

Rock mine expansion proposed for panther habitat in west Broward
Environmentalists fear for panther habitat

By David Fleshler, Sun Sentinel

4:20 AM EST, December 28, 2009

BIG CYPRESS RESERVATION

The Seminole Tribe has applied for a permit to expand a rock mine in a remote corner of northwest Broward County, in a proposal that could generate opposition from environmentalists concerned about the Florida panther.

The tribe has asked the Army Corps of Engineers for permission to destroy 198 acres of wetlands to mine limestone on its Big Cypress Reservation, a place of pastures, forests and wetlands where panthers hunt deer, hogs and other prey.

The rock would be used mainly to rebuild a bridge, widen shoulders and make other safety improvements to Snake Road, a notoriously dangerous road that winds through the reservation. But the project could face a fight from conservationists concerned about the construction of housing developments, roads and other developments in the endangered cat's shrinking habitat.

"The panther is getting squeezed," said Matthew Schwartz, Everglades chairman of the Broward Group of the Sierra Club, who has led hikes through the area and seen panther tracks. "Each development may not be the final nail in the coffin, but it's the cumulative impact. It's not just the rock mine, it's the residential development on the western side of Big Cypress."

The rock mine is within the area used by panthers to hunt deer and other game, Schwartz said, and it serves as a travel corridor connecting the important panther habitat of Big Cypress National Preserve to the forested public game lands of western Broward and Palm Beach counties.

"The mine in and of itself is a small footprint, but it does bring human disturbance into the area," Schwartz said. "It just makes it that much harder for panthers to use that habitat and use it as a travel corridor."

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to seek an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the likely impact on the panther. But many environmentalists have little faith in the government's willingness to stop or restrict projects that could threaten the endangered cat.

Several environmental groups this month filed 60-day notices of plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate critical habitat for the panther, a requirement under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rock mine expansion would fall within the area for which they are seeking protection. The groups include the Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Center for Biological Diversity.

Ken Warren, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said radio-collared panthers have been recorded in the general area of the mine, but that the wildlife service just received a copy of the application and can't yet comment on its possible impact on the panther.

Although rock mining typically involves blasting, no explosives will be used for this one, according to the Corps of Engineers. Using a backhoe, the tribe's workers would mine in strips 20 feet deep, 200 feet wide and 2,195 feet long, leaving behind rock pit lakes. To mitigate the loss of wetlands, a federal requirement, they have proposed making improvements to 736 acres of existing wetlands on the west side of the reservation, which the tribe says will enhance habitat for panthers and endangered wood storks.

Gary Bitner, spokesman for the tribe, said the mine is needed to make safety improvements to the two-lane road that runs through tribal land.

"Much of the fill will be used to build up the soft shoulders of the road, which has claimed many lives over the past several decade," he said in an e-mail.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4535.

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/fl-seminole-mine-20091227,0,6254643.story

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