Washington, DC —The endangered Florida panther needs 4,860 square miles – roughly 3 million acres – protected as critical habitat in southern Florida to save it from extinction and recover the species, according to a new scientific petition submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Council of Civic Associations, Inc..
“Development and tradeoffs invariably leave the Florida panther with less room to roam,” said petition author Michael Robinson with the Center, who is also the author of an authoritative history of federal policy toward predators. The Center’s entry into conservation efforts for the Florida panther adds a new element to the decision-making process underway at the Fish and Wildlife Service on a petition previously filed by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We work on hundreds of endangered species from Alaska to Maine. None are more endangered than the Florida panther. It is teetering on the brink of extinction in a sea of encroaching housing developments and roads.”
Only approximately 100 to 120 Florida panthers survive in a single breeding population in Collier, Lee, Hendry, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties. Male panthers also roam northward across the Caloosahatchee River to other areas in Florida and even as far as west-central Georgia, where one was shot last year. But in recent decades no females have been sighted outside of South Florida. Originally, Florida panthers were native across a broad swath of the southeastern United States.
Added Robinson: “There is a very small window of opportunity to save the panther. If we don’t map out and permanently protect all lands necessary for the great cat’s survival and recovery immediately, it will go the way of the dusky seaside sparrow and Caribbean monk seal — two Florida species that have winked out forever in our lifetime.”
Critical habitat is defined in the Endangered Species Act as the areas necessary for the recovery of an endangered species. Research shows that animals and plants with critical habitat designated for them are recovering twice as fast as those without it.
“The Florida panther is being driven to extinction splayed across the bumpers of cars speeding between gated golf course communities and new megacities sprawling across what have been its ancestral hunting and breeding grounds,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represents agency scientists who have charged scientific fraud to aid development to the detriment of the panther. “The only thing that will stiffen the spine of the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job is a legal mandate to protect the habitat essential to the survival of the panther."
The Florida panther has been on the endangered species list since 1967, but its habitat has been insufficiently protected. The Florida Panther Recovery Plan (2008) and today’s petition identify three areas needed for protection: a “primary zone” where panthers currently live and reproduce, a “secondary zone” of adjoining areas that panthers sometimes roam, and a “dispersal zone” consisting of a narrow travel corridor between developments where panthers traverse the Caloosahatchee River to reach more distant areas and potentially set up homes.
“Going to court may be a necessary step because the Fish and Wildlife Service is a thoroughly broken agency and Congressional oversight is almost nonexistent,” said Ann Hauck, president of the Council of Civic Associations. “Irresponsible development is killing the very values that make Florida special and, at this rate, panthers will only be seen on our personalized license plates."
Florida panthers are a subspecies of the puma, or mountain lion, with subtle differences in skull shape from other pumas. They are uniquely adapted to a hot, humid climate and habitats that differ from those in the West. Adult male Florida panthers weigh an average of 116 pounds, and females weigh 75 pounds.
Through petitions and litigation, the Center has obtained more than 100 million acres of critical habitat nationally, for endangered species ranging from elkhorn and staghorn corals off the Florida coast to Atlantic salmon in Maine and eiders in Alaska; On September 1, 2009, a Center lawsuit garnered protected habitat for the smalltooth sawfish over more than 840,000 acres of watery habitat along Florida’s southwestern coast. And on September 3, the Center sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to gain critical habitat for another Florida animal, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. The Center has filed more than 500 lawsuits on behalf of endangered wildlife and won success in 93 percent of its cases.