Feds say no to panther critical habitat
* By ERIC STAATS
* Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:32 a.m. , updated February 11, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rejected petitions to designate 3 million acres in South Florida as critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther, the agency announced this morning.
A critical habitat designation would add a new permitting hurdle for developers by requiring not only that their project not jeopardize the continued existence of the panther but also not "result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat" for the panther.
Even without critical habitat, developers still must meet the "no jeopardy" standard. The Fish and Wildlife Service rarely withholds permits for development in panther habitat.
"We believe our current strategy and priorities are the best path forward at this time," Paul Souza, the agency's field supervisor in South Florida, said in a written statement.
The statement cited the restoration of Picayune Strand State Forest, the ongoing evaluation of a panther protection plan proposed by large landowners in Collier County and other environmental groups and building panther crossings.
Critical habitat petitions have been filed by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Southwest Florida-based Council of Civic Associations.
The panther needs all of the habitat the FWS panther recovery plan identifies for the wide-ranging cat and that can only be accomplished by a critical habitat designation, said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"We don't think this is going to stand in court," Robinson said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has discretion under the Endangered Species Act to decide not to designate critical habitat for species listed as endangered before 1978. The panther was listed in 1967.
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