WASHINGTON— A coalition of conservation and government accountability groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Council of Civic Associations — filed a formal 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s failure to respond to a scientific petition to designate critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther.
“The Florida panther is on its way to extinction as its habitat becomes suburbia,” said petition author Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Robinson added: “Critical habitat designation will protect the special places that Florida panthers call home and let endangered panthers expand their breeding range and raise more kittens — and if we’re lucky, make a future possible for this unique and beautiful animal. We hope that the government will acknowledge the strong science we submitted and designate critical habitat soon.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, PEER, and Council of Civic Associations filed the petition on September 17, 2009, triggering a statutory requirement for an initial finding on the petition’s scientific merit within 90 days – a deadline that has passed without action.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is presiding over the slow-motion extinction of the Florida panther,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Soon, the only place Florida panthers will be seen is on personalized license plates.”
The critical habitat petition presents evidence that 4,860 square miles – roughly 3 million acres – in southern Florida must be spared from further development to save and begin to recover the Florida panther.
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 to a broad swath of the southeastern United States.
Said Ann Hauck of the Council of Civic Associations: “The Florida panther, which has been on the endangered species list for 43 years without recovery, represents what is left of an imperiled ecosystem, a symbol of everything else that is going to disappear unless the federal government undertakes protective measures that work. The most critical threat is the continued erosion of habitat essential to its survival and recovery.”
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 has been on the endangered species list since 1967, but its habitat has been egregiously underprotected. The Florida Panther Recovery Plan (2008) and the September 2009 critical habitat 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.
Florida panthers are a subspecies of the puma, or mountain lion, with subtle differences in skull shape. 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.