Petitioning Governor Rick Scott and 12 others

Expand Florida Panther habitat, stop development, create corridors diverting panthers away from our roads, provide more economic funding for recovery efforts.

The Florida Panther (Puma Concolor Coryi), was listed as an endangered species 41 years ago (March 11, 1967), but this species is still in peril because critical habitat has never been established; remediation for this is urgently needed. The 2012-2013 Annual Report on the Research and Management of Florida Panthers (Revised in September 11, 2013) that the estimated population in the wild is within the range of 100-160 individuals.

Between January and April 2014, 10 Florida Panthers have  already died. This is an extremely urgent action to save this species. Every death is a great loss for the Florida Panther's species survival.

 

Letter to
Governor Rick Scott
US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mr. Daniel M. Ashe (US Fish and Wildlife Service Director)
Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation Senator Charles S. Dean, Sr.
and 10 others
Florida Transportation Commission Mr. Tom DiGiacomo
State Traffic Operations Engineer Mark C. Wilson
Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, Jr.
Committee on Transportation Senator Jeff Brandes
President of the Florida Senate Senator Don Gaetz
South Florida Ecological Services Mr. John Wrublik
FL Fish and Wildlife Director Mr. Nick Wiley
US Fish and Wildlife Service Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team
Secretary of the Interior Ms. Sally Jewell (Secretary of the Interior)
INTRODUCTION:
The Florida Panther (Puma Concolor Coryi), was listed as an endangered species 41 years ago (March 11, 1967), but this species is still in peril because critical habitat has never been established - even though the Endangered Species Act requires the designation of critical habitat for endangered species. Remediation for this is urgently needed and breeding programs need to be widened and have proper funding to thrive. Right now, The Florida Panther Project is the only active repopulation program in operation anywhere in the Eastern U.S. http://www.floridapantherprojectinc.org/

CURRENT POPULATION:
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission [FWC] reported in the 2012-2013 Annual Report on the Research and Management of Florida Panthers (Revised in September 11, 2013) that the estimated population in the wild is within the range of 100-160 individuals. http://myfwc.com/news/resources/fact-sheets/panther-population/

HISTORIC RANGE:
The historic range of the Florida Panther was Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and some think they reached into Texas.

CURRENT RANGE:
Today they only live in parts of Southern Florida including the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp; this is less than 5% of their historic range.

THE FLORIDA PANTHER AS AN UMBRELLA SPECIES:
The Florida Panthers are considered by scientists to be an "Umbrella Species". Panthers act as an umbrella of protection to thousands of native plants and animals that thrive within the refuges and protected lands set aside to increase panther populations.

MAJOR THREATS FOR THE FLORIDA PANTHER:
The Florida Panther is threatened by the destruction of their habitat, collisions with automobiles, genetic defects caused by extensive inbreeding, and feline diseases.

I- Habitat Loss:
Increasing human development and population growth in Florida has led to habitat loss.

A. In 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Council of Civic Associations petitioned the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list Critical Habitat (In Re: Florida panther recovery, Florida- Petition for rule-making to designate critical habitat and ensure recovery of the endangered Florida panther, in accordance with Florida Panther Recovery Plan and scientific findings.) http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Florida_panther/pdfs/Florida_Panther_Critical_Habitat_Petition.pdf

* In February 2010, the above petition was DENIED
* In further appeal to the Federal District Court, the denial was UPHELD.

B. In February 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity, Cougar Rewilding Foundation, One More Generation, and The Florida Panther Society, Inc. petitioned the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the reintroduction of the endangered Florida Panther. (In Re: Florida panther recovery, Florida, Georgia. Petition for rule-making to ensure recovery of the endangered Florida panther, through reintroduction, in accordance with Florida Panther Recovery Plan and scientific findings.) http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Florida_panther/pdfs/Florida-panther-petition-Okefenokee.pdf

* In May 2011, the above petition was also DENIED

C. In 2012, the number of deaths of the Florida Panther was 26; highest on record.

D. It is a fact that the habitat of the Florida Panther is insufficient. In November of 2008, a deer hunter shot and killed a panther near LaGrange, Georgia. When the results came back from genetic testing, it was proven that the animal was indeed a Florida Panther that had migrated over 600 miles north, out of the Florida Everglades where their pocket population exists. http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2011/11-057.html

E. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the first recovery plan for the Florida panther on December 17, 1981, and revised that plan on June 22, 1987, March 13, 1995 and November 1, 2008. The recovery plan identifies limited habitat, and continued habitat loss and fragmentation as the “most important threats to panther persistence.” http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MammalsPDFs/FinalizedFloridaPantherRecoveryPlan081218.pdf

F. The current living range of the Florida Panther is only within the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, which is one of the most endangered parks http://www.eparks.org/endangeredparks/, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

* The Everglades National Park - which is one of the world’s largest fresh water marshes, faces many problems including pollution, low water levels, and poor enforcement of regulations.

G. Inside the Big Cypress National Preserve [BCNP] & Everglades National Park [EVER], humans are allowed to conduct activities such as camping, hiking, and fishing, among others. These human activities disrupt even further the opportunity of free-range for this shy and elusive species.

H. Intra-specific aggression is a major problem due to encounters in small habitat.

* A single adult male panther will stake out a territory covering 200 square miles or more, fighting another rival male that enters his domain.

I. Small habitat has resulted in Inbreeding. Due to lack of dispersion, close relatives have bred. Cited as possible negative consequences of inbreeding among Florida Panthers are: Congenital heart defects (Atrial Septal Defects), poor sperm quality, and high incidence of cryptorchidism where one or two retained testicles do not descend into the scrotum (Roelke 1991; Dunbar 1993).

* "While other human related factors affect health of the panther's environment, it is now clear that genetic variability and health of the Florida panther must be restored for the taxon to survive even with adequate habitat preservation and other enhancement measures." Environmental Assessment: Genetic Management Options for the Florida Panther, 1994

II- Vehicle collisions:
Vehicle collisions are the largest human-caused threat to individual Florida panthers. Habitat loss is interrelated to vehicle collisions. Due to highways and streets being constructed within the habitat of the Florida Panther, they need to share their habitat with vehicles.

J. Highways and development are increasingly fragmenting Florida. With new developments, including new roads, Florida panthers are at a greater chance of being hit by cars - the leading cause of death in a year that has broken all previous records.

* Verified data collected by FWC and BCNP showed that Florida Panther mortality and injuries between 1 July 2012 – 30 June 2013 was 26 deaths. Of those, 19 were caused by traumatic Injuries associated with vehicular collision, 3 by intra-specific aggression, 3 were unknown, and 1 was euthanized (captive) due to cancer.

K. The five-year average of ANNUAL panther deaths is approximately 25 panthers, with, on average, 17 killed yearly by vehicles.

L. Although State Road 29 and Alligator Alley (I-75) are particularly dangerous for the Florida Panther, they have also been killed in other highways and streets. Deaths due to traumatic injuries associated with vehicular collisions have happened in US- 41; SR- 29; CR-846; US-27; CR-833; CR-846; and SR-84.
(Appendix 1 - FWC Annual Report 2012-2013 http://www.floridapanthernet.org/images/field_notes/FWC_Panther_Annual_Report_2012_13_Final_revised_11sept2013.pdf Page 19)

III- Illegal hunting / killing:

M. Although it is against the law, hunters still shoot panthers occasionally. The most recent illegal killing happened on December 7, 2013, when an 18 month-old female Florida panther was found shot dead in Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County. This loss is immense considering the fact that she was a female nearing her breeding age. http://www.defendersblog.org/2014/01/endangered-florida-panther-killed/

* Note that this Panther was killed inside of a National Preserve and this is supposed to be a protected place for wildlife. While this is the first panther shot in the Big Cypress, it's at least the fourth one killed under mysterious circumstances in the past four years.
http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/panther-shot-dead-on-big-cypress-preserve/2156228

IV- Reproduction and Health / Diseases:

N. The average breeding age for female panthers is 2-3 years. Florida Panthers usually produce 1 litter every 2 years with an average litter size of 1-3 kittens. http://www.floridiannature.com/FloridaPanther.htm

O. Florida panthers have an unusually large number of health problems. Most are related to poor habitat conditions and genetic defects. Besides the genetic defects due to inbreeding, the Florida Panther is susceptible to feline leukemia and feline distemper Panthers have been exposed to several potentially serious diseases including feline calicivirus, feline panleukopenia virus, feline infectious peritonitis, and feline immunodeficiency virus (Dunbar 1994).

P. Florida panthers are also exposed, through the food chain, to a variety of pesticides and other compounds with potential harmful effects on health and reproduction. Mercury poisoning is a big threat. Raccoons are thought to be the major source of mercury in Florida panthers. In 1989 scientists first became aware of the potential threat of mercury to panthers in south Florida when a female panther from Everglades National Park died. Later tests revealed her liver contained high levels of mercury (110 parts per million). Her tissue also contained high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenels) and pesticide residues. http://www.floridapanthernet.org/index.php/handbook/threats/mercury_and_other_environmental_contaminants/#.Uu2IMumPJjo

Q. Around the Everglades, panthers have been contaminated with mercury by eating raccoons high in mercury, which passes through the aquatic food chain.

V- Issues with past management of the Florida Panther: (Not a complete list)
Please read: Using Skewed Data at http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2007/Cat-on-a-Collision-Course.aspx

From the text: “Indeed, some of the most controversial projects were allowed to go forward even though the government's own biologists saw potential problems for the cats.” … "Agency officials see it as a balancing act, but for years they were clearly erring on the side of developers, even though their mandate was to err on the side of the species," says a former agency biologist who participated in the reviews. The biologist, who still holds a government job, spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

* Only after an agency scientist successfully challenged the policy in a whistleblower lawsuit in 2005, the wildlife service formally agreed to toss out the old data and to use a more scientifically rigorous process for making decisions about preserving land and compensating for lost territory.

S. From the text: NWF and FWF uncovered evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been ignoring scientific data about panther movements and automatically approving development applications in the animal's habitat. "The agency had been rubber-stamping projects scheduled in essential habitat for years," said NWF Senior Counsel John Kostyack.

T. From the text: The two groups [NWF and FWF] also successfully filed lawsuits to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for construction plans--including a 5,200-acre open pit mine--and dredge-and-fill operations in the cats' habitat without conducting proper environmental assessments of the proposed projects.

V- Through this petition we respectfully ask that:

1- The Florida Panther’s habitat, which currently is only the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, is expanded according to their territorial needs. This would prevent the health problems that occur from inbreeding as well as the intra-specific aggression from males overlapping territories. Scientific data is available with the species’ needs according to years of study.

2- The Florida's vast interior rural landscape is protected from further development, and that corridors are created to connect conservation areas, and diverting panthers away from our roads.

3- Stop development, both housing and transportation, in known panther habitat as well as constructing underpasses that will allow panthers to safely pass underneath. These underpasses will save the lives of individuals and reduce greatly the number of deaths due to vehicular collision. There is enough infrastructure currently in place, which could be refurbished, to support the state’s growing population. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 survey’s data, the state of Florida is grossly overbuilt. “Florida has roughly half the population of California, but more vacant houses. In fact, Florida, has more vacant houses — 1,567,778, more than one out of every six — than any state in the country.” http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/realestate/floridas-home-vacancy-rates-no-1-in-nation-are-drag-on-recovery/1158782

4- The government provide more economic funding for recovery efforts to The Florida Panther Project, as well as other organizations that contribute to this necessary effort. The Florida Panther Project, for example, is funded only through voluntary contributions. (NOTE: The author/s of this petition is/are NOT affiliated with The Florida Panther Project)

5- The government support and provide funding in the creation of new organizations toward repopulation and conservation projects of the Florida Panther.

6- The government contribute, along with the agencies and organizations, in educating the citizens on the importance of conservation of the species. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, “Education and outreach remains a critical component in the recovery action and saving the FP, livestock issues and human interaction.” http://www.floridapanthernet.org/images/field_notes/FWC_Panther_Annual_Report_2012_13_Final_revised_11sept2013.pdf (P.19)

7- Federal and/or State government provide grants and/or incentives to landowners to erect fences for cattle, livestock, and personal protection around their property.

8- That illegal hunting/killing is closely monitored and impose higher fines, as well as jail time, to individuals that hunt/kill a Florida Panther. We also ask for lifetime revocation of the hunting license. Currently, under the federal Endangered Species Act, killing a Florida panther carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, a $100,000 fine and forfeiture of hunting equipment used in the crime. But this penalty has not been carried out and, currently, the offender’s hunting license is suspended only during probation time.

The stiffer sentence handed down for killing a Florida Panther was to a Florida man named Todd Alan Benfield. Benfield killed a Florida Panther “because it was interfering with his deer hunting” and was ordered to spend 60 days confined to home before serving weekend jail time totaling 30 days and serving three years of probation. His hunting license was revoked only during his probation time, Benfield was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, pay $5,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, work 200 hours of community service at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge or Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, publish a public apology in the Naples Daily News and forfeit the compound bow, arrows and ladder tree stand he used to kill the panther.

While Benfield’s sentence was good, we believe that he should have gotten a stiffer penalty given the harm his actions caused the imperiled Florida Panther population. In three cases where a person shot a Florida Panther, the sentences were light ones for other men charged with killing a Florida panther since 1983. For example, (1) in 1985, Elmer Brooker, of West Palm Beach, was sentenced to five years of probation and was fined $5,000. His hunting privileges were suspended during his probation.

(2) The shooter of a panther in south Georgia was sentenced in 2011 to two years probation and was fined $2,000. His hunting privileges also were suspended. (3) In the most famous case, Seminole Chief James Billie was acquitted. http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2012/jul/26/naples-man-who-killed-florida-panther-sentenced-ho/

8. That all agencies are monitored to enforce the trustworthiness in the implementations of the recovery plans given the past experience in the management of the Florida Panther recovery/protection efforts.

References:

http://florida.sierraclub.org/pantherhab.asp
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Florida_panther/pdfs/Florida_Panther_Critical_Habitat_Petition.pdf
http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2007/Cat-on-a-Collision-Course.aspx
http://www.floridapanthernet.org/index.php/handbook/threats/mercury_and_other_environmental_contaminants/#.Uu2IMumPJjo
http://www.floridapanthernet.org/images/field_notes/FWC_Panther_Annual_Report_2012_13_Final_revised_11sept2013.pdf
http://www.eparks.org/endangeredparks/
http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2007/Cat-on-a-Collision-Course.aspx
http://www.floridiannature.com/FloridaPanther.htm
http://www.defendersblog.org/2014/01/endangered-florida-panther-killed/
http://www.eparks.org/endangeredparks/
http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MammalsPDFs/FinalizedFloridaPantherRecoveryPlan081218.pdf
http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2011/11-057.html
http://myfwc.com/news/resources/fact-sheets/panther-population/
http://www.floridapantherprojectinc.org/
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Florida_panther/pdfs/Florida_Panther_Critical_Habitat_Petition.pdf
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Florida_panther/pdfs/Florida-panther-petition-Okefenokee.pdf