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

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft Environmental Impact Statement which approves 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 will have severe impacts on numerous other listed species, including the gopher tortoise, crested caracara, wood stork, eastern indigo snake, scrub jay, red-cockaded woodpecker and the Florida bonneted bat, one of the most endangered mammals on our planet. 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 can now be found almost entirely in a tiny corner of still-rural land 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 over 1,000 new residents per day moving to Florida, that habitat is considerably smaller and more fragmented today than it was in the 1970s. The Eastern Cougar was officially declared extinct and removed from the endangered species list in January of 2018.

According to the landmark study (How Much is Enough?, Kautz et al, 2005) which designated the 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 to the landscape.  They should be restored as quality panther habitat and certainly not be intensively developed.

The service's plan now up for approval 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, 20,000 acres are actually inside the primary zone - the core breeding and foraging range for the Florida Panther.  One new development alone - Rural Lands West - will put 10,000 new homes and a major golf course on land adjacent to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on top of a a critical wildlife corridor!

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 27 panthers killed so far this year, all but three died from vehicles.  In 2017, the death toll was 30 panthers while 2016 set a new record with 42 panther deaths in a single year.

By 2050, under this plan, 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 the main thoroughfare in this tract of new and completely unnecessary Florida suburbia.  Another area road known for panther roadkill - Corkscrew Road - could see traffic increase as much as 23.5 times from current rates.

Many other consequences will follow from this plan - light pollution, environmental release of heavy metals and other chemicals from road runoff, spread of invasive plants, degradation of area wetlands through depletion of groundwater resources and 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 bear and its famous sense of smell (also a resident of the area), that will surely mean more raids on homes and garbage cans.  Florida has a "one strike and you're out" policy with regard to "nuisance bears" and 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 which will die as a result of vehicles.

Citing their new requirement to "streamline" decision-making (Secretary's Order 3355, August 2017), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is refusing to hold a public meeting on their review of this plan - or even meet with stakeholders individually to clarify important details.  This is unacceptable for a project of this size, complexity and level of impact.  When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, Congress found that many species were being lost as a "consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation."  Now, 45 years after the passage of the act, that appears to be exactly the case here.

This current Habitat Conservation Plan is just the latest in a long and unbroken string of projects approved in the habitat of the Florida Panther by this same agency. It defies the purpose for which the Endangered Species Act was written - the recovery of threatened and endangered wildlife species.  In the face of what is perhaps the biggest threat Florida's beloved State Animal, the Florida Panther, has ever faced, we say "enough is enough."



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