Washington, DC —Five conservation groups, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Council for Civic Associations, filed a lawsuit today in Federal District Court in Fort Myers, Florida against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Service’s failure to protect the Florida Panther.
Less than 100 Florida Panthers survive in the wild – clinging to less than five percent of their historic range. Their entire remaining habitat is located in a handful of South Florida Counties. It is the last of the eastern cougars which once roamed across the southern U.S., and is the last species of large cat east of the Mississippi River.
Although the panther has been listed as an endangered species since 1967, the Service has never designated critical habitat for the species. Critical habitat is a geographic area necessary to help an endangered species recover its population, and its designation is a critical tool within the Endangered Species Act. With the refusal to make this designation, only the panther is protected. But its habitat – the living and breeding space it must have to survive – is not.
In 2009 the five groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther. After more than a year of dithering, on February 11, 2010 the Service gave notice to the groups that it was denying their petitions and refusing to designate critical habitat. As a result, the groups are taking this action to protect the panther’s last remaining habitat, before it is irreversibly lost due to over-development and climate change.
“Recent actions by the Obama administration indicate that its efforts to protect endangered species will be as anemic as its predecessor’s,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Florida panther is a prime example of the federal government ignoring the science and its own scientists due to political factors."
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said: “The Florida panther and the myriad other rare wildlife that share the unique ecosystem of Southwest Florida will disappear from our world forever unless critical habitat is designated in accordance with the law. We cannot stand by while the Florida panther goes extinct and the balance of nature that it helps maintain is completely unraveled.”
Ann Hauck, President of the Council of Civic Associations, said: “The Florida panther has lost 95% of its historic range. The Council of Civic Associations’ short term goal is to prevent development in primary panther habitat and to prevent the federal government from piecemeal permitting that does nothing to address cumulative impacts. The current USFWS guidelines are that unless it can be proven that a project will wipe out the entire species then the Service cannot or will not issue a Jeopardy Biological Opinion hence the Service has issued only one jeopardy opinion since 1993 and that was for a critter in Tennessee.”
Andrew McElwaine, President of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said: “Florida Panthers are nearly extinct. The best available science tells us that we must protect the habitat of the Florida Panther to allow these magnificent cats to survive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a responsibility to protect these animals – and their failure to do so has led to this lawsuit.”
Eric Huber, Sierra Club Senior Staff Attorney representing the groups said: “The Service completely failed to respond to the science in our petitions to designate critical habitat or to consider the effects of global warming on panther habitat in any way. The Service’s refusal to take all available measures under the Endangered Species Act to protect this beautiful creature is indefensible.”