Environmental groups file lawsuit to protect panthers
Five groups join forces to take on the federal government
By Kate Spinner
Published: Friday, February 19, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 11:01 p.m.
SARASOTA - Wilderness losses have prompted five environmental groups, including the powerful Sierra Club, to sue the federal government for failing to protect Florida panthers as required by the Endangered Species Act.
The suit was filed in federal court in Fort Myers Thursday and announced at a press conference in Sarasota, where the Sierra Club's national board is meeting this week.
The action stems from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recent refusal to designate 3 million acres of land in South Florida as critical panther habitat. The suit demands the designation for that acreage, as well as for land to the north, possibly including parts of Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties.
Development within critical habitat is more restrictive and requires extra protection for endangered species, such as panthers.
"It is a scandal that we are filing this lawsuit," said Carl Pope, executive director of the National Sierra Club, pointing to the decades of habitat destruction that has kept panthers from reaching a stable population. "There is no mammal in North America for which the urgency is as great."
The Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Council of Civic Associations filed the suit.
The wildlife service had no comment, said agency spokesman Ken Warren.
Several other environmental groups have not joined the suit because they are trying to collaborate with the wildlife service on other panther efforts.
Habitat loss is the top threat to the Florida panther, said Mark Lotz, a wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Roughly 100 Florida panthers remain. More than 90 percent live south of the Caloosahatchee River.
A few males of the species have staked out territory north of the river, including in Sarasota County this month, but no breeding females have followed.
Last year, scientists documented 10 panther births and 24 deaths. Out of the deaths, 17 were killed on roads.
Between 2003 and 2008, the wildlife service allowed the loss of 25,000 acres of panther lands.
Although developers paid to put other land in conservation, environmental groups do not believe that this was adequate.
Some environmental groups hope the wildlife service is changing. Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife, credits the service for pursuing regional protection plans that will forbid development in some areas and steer it toward other areas.
The movement toward such planning in Collier County has resulted in a developer's decision Thursday to postpone a huge, controversial project called Big Cypress.
The 3,600-acre project would have ruined 2,800 acres of rare habitat where panthers live and breed.
Opponents say the wildlife service should be able to designate critical habitat and build regional conservation plans simultaneously.
"They aren't resisting this because of redundancy. If it meant nothing, why not just do it and comply with the law," said Craig Segall, environmental law fellow with the Sierra Club.
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