45,000 acres of Florida Panther habitat may be lost forever! Panthers need your help now!

45,000 acres of Florida Panther habitat may be lost forever! Panthers need your help now!

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South Florida Wildlands Association started this petition to Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior Deb Haaland and

In October of 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement which, if finalized, would approve 45,000 acres of dense suburban development and limestone mines in addition to hundreds of miles of new or widened roads in some of the most important habitat which remains for the endangered Florida panther.  The "Eastern Collier Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan" will also have severe impacts on numerous other federally and state-listed species.  This Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and accompanying Incidental Take Permit (ITP) would authorize harm to the Florida panther, Florida bonneted bat, Red-cockaded woodpecker, Everglade snail kite, Wood stork, Northern crested caracara, Florida scrub-jay, Eastern indigo snake, Gopher tortoise, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Gopher frog, Big Cypress fox squirrel, Everglades mink, Burrowing owl, Florida sandhill crane, Little blue heron, Roseate spoonbill, Southeastern American kestrel, and the Tricolored heron. We call on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reject this plan.

Once roaming throughout the Southeast United States and the entire Florida Peninsula, Florida panthers are now found almost entirely in a tiny corner of still-rural lands in Southwest Florida.  Although the population has rebounded from a low of perhaps 20 to 30 panthers in the 1970s to an estimated 120 to 230 adult and sub-adult panthers today, this is still an extraordinarily low number for the only big cat left in the entire Eastern United States.  And with around 1,000 new residents per day moving to Florida, the habitat left to the species is considerably smaller and more fragmented today than it was in the 1970s - in spite of the small population rebound for panthers since that time. The Eastern cougar was officially declared extinct and removed from the federal endangered species list in January of 2018.  Habitat loss and fragmentation coupled with hunting of the cat (considered by many to be a “varmint” or nuisance) were the major culprits.

According to the landmark study (How Much is Enough?, Kautz et al, 2005) which designated the Florida panther's primary, secondary, and dispersal zones - "The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is an endangered, wide-ranging predator whose habitat needs conflict with a rapidly growing human population."  That study also found that the entire mosaic of natural, semi-natural, and agricultural lands which remain for panthers are “essential components of a landscape-scale conservation plan for the protection of a viable Florida panther population."  None of it is expendable.  As for those undeveloped lands that are not currently considered high quality for panther use (the so-called "secondary zone"), they still provide important connectivity in the landscape.  They should be restored as quality panther habitat and certainly not be intensively developed.

A more recent study (Landscape Analysis of Adult Florida Panther Habitat, Frakes, et al, 2015) concluded: "Because there is less panther habitat remaining than previously thought, we recommend that all remaining breeding habitat in south Florida should be maintained, and the current panther range should be expanded into south-central Florida."

The plan submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by 12 of the area's private landowners and now up for approval by the Service flies in the face of this reliable science and allows the following:

A human population bomb inside the core panther habitat.  The 45,000 acres of dense development being proposed is equal in size to Washington D.C.  It will mean hundreds of thousands more people living in this sparsely populated area - devouring habitat and wildlife corridors in the process.  Of the 45,000 acres of new development, about 20,000 acres are actually inside the primary zone - the core breeding and foraging range for the Florida panther.  One new development alone - the Town of Big Cypress, just recently approved by the Collier County Commission for the primary zone - will put 7,500 acres of new homes, shops, civic buildings, and a major golf course on land adjacent to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on top of a critical wildlife corridor!  Though now approved by the local county government (and even one of the commissioners who approved it acknowledged that this new development will not have a positive impact on the environment), it still requires approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the form of the HCP that is the subject of this petition.

A greatly expanded road network.  The plan envisions 200 miles of new roads and road widening projects inside the plan's footprint. Roadkill is already the leading cause of death by far for panthers - of the 18 Florida panthers known to have died so far this year (a big number for only the first 6 months of the year), 13 were killed by vehicle strikes, 2 died as a result of intra-specific aggression (panther on panther fights over dwindling territory), 2 died of starvation, and 1 was too decomposed to identify the cause of death.  Recent years showed similar results, with the vast majority killed by vehicle:  2020, 22 deaths, 2019, 27 deaths, 2018, 30 deaths, 2017, 30 deaths, and 2016, 42 deaths - the most so far in a single year.  Uncollared panthers which die in the field are not usually found and are not included in these numbers. This is an unacceptable death toll for one of the most endangered species in North America and the last big cat which remains in the Eastern United States.  The panther is also Florida's official State Animal - chosen by a vote of Florida students in 1982.  It is the name of school sports teams throughout the state and a Florida professional hockey team.

Under this HCP, by 2050 about one million more vehicle trips will be added to the same roads which are already the leading cause of panther mortality.   State Road 29, which currently runs north-south between the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Cypress National Preserve and is ground zero for panther roadkill, will become a major new thoroughfare for this tract of new, and we believe, completely unnecessary Florida suburbia.  This current two-lane road (likely to be widened) would connect the new development to other parts of South Florida through an existing interchange to Interstate 75.  Another existing east-west thoroughfare in the center of the HCP and also known for panther roadkill - Corkscrew Road - could see traffic increase as much as 23.5 times the current rates.

Many other consequences will follow from this plan - light pollution, reduction in prey species, environmental release of heavy metals and other chemicals from road runoff, lawns and golf courses, the spread of invasive plants, loss and degradation of area wetlands, depletion of limited groundwater resources through paving over of aquifer recharge areas, genetic isolation of vulnerable plant and wildlife communities, and a great increase in contact between wildlife and people.  For panthers, that means an increase in predation on pets while for the Florida black bears (another well-known resident of this area) and its famous sense of smell, that will surely mean more explorations of homes, garbage cans, barbecues, bird feeders, and anything else with the slightest odor of food.  Florida has a "one strike and you're out" policy with regard to "nuisance bears" that have lost their fear of people and are considered dangerous.  Bear maulings with severe injuries have occurred in other Florida communities built near public lands that are major hotspots for Florida black bears.  We expect increases in the number of black bears which will be killed under that program - as well as an uptick in the number of bears that will die as a result of vehicles.  Dramatic increases in wildlife roadkill are expected for all of the wildlife inside the footprint of this HCP - federally listed or not.

Citing a requirement to "streamline" decision-making (Secretary's Order 3355, August 2017), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to hold public meetings on their draft review of this plan - or even meet with stakeholders individually to clarify important details - after its release in 2018.  In July of 2020, approval of the Habitat Conservation Plan was placed on the list of projects the Department of the Interior wanted "fast-tracked" to create jobs during the COVID crisis in conformity with an earlier presidential directive. The response from the Department has so far been unacceptable for a project of this size, complexity, and expected level of impact.

When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, Congress found that “various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”  Now, 48 years after the passage of the Act, that language applies more than ever.  In this project, the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of habitat that is already deemed insufficient (or barely sufficient) for the Florida panther and other federally listed endangered and threatened species that habitat supports will take place in exchange for nothing more than new residential and commercial development.  Florida has already become infamous for its level of sprawl.  Surely, Congress expected the Endangered Species Act to hit the brakes in a situation like this.

This current Habitat Conservation Plan is just the latest in an unbroken string of projects - virtually all of which have been approved in the habitat of the Florida panther by federal, state, and local agencies and government entities.  As noted above, approval of this project would defy the purpose for which the Endangered Species Act was written - the recovery of threatened and endangered wildlife species.  Given the amount of growth it would spur both inside and outside the plan footprint, it would also likely doom the panther, a wide-ranging animal just hanging on by a whisker, to extinction.  That would be the basis of a “jeopardy opinion” issued by the Service – which in this case would be completely warranted and would stop this project from moving forward.  In the face of one of the biggest threats Florida's beloved State Animal, the Florida panther, has faced, we say "enough is enough."  Please use your authority to deny the Eastern Collier Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan and Incidental Take Permit.

 

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