Washington, DC — Over the last generation, government habitat preservation programs for the critically endangered Florida panther have allowed more than two acres to be destroyed by development for every acre supposedly saved, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Now, despite official recognition of failing panther population recovery, several new developments threaten to fragment tattered panther habitat even further.
In the period from 1984 to 2009, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved 127 developments in areas that it deemed could adversely affect the panther. Those projects destroyed nearly 100,000 acres (96,124) of panther habitat while less than 42,000 acres (41,612) were “preserved” either on or offsite of the projects. It is unclear how many of those preserved acres actually benefit the panther.
Despite this steady loss of habitat, FWS is signing off on more developments and major roads cutting through the remaining panther habitat. One such artery, called Oil Well Road, would be a six-lane road across Camp Keais Strand, the corridor connecting Corkscrew Swamp with Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, there is an ongoing study of a new I-75 interchange at Everglades Blvd., as well as a Collier County “East of 951” highway extension study.
This spreading network of highways is also leading to the demise of the few panthers remaining. There are less than 120 Florida panthers remaining in the wild, a number reduced by a record 24 panther deaths in 2009. Most of those (16) were the result of vehicle collisions. Thus far in 2010, another 5 panthers have died – three from collisions.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is presiding over the slow motion extinction of the Florida panther, all the while calling it a success story,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is part of a coalition suing the Obama administration to finally take action to protect panther habitat. “How can the Fish & Wildlife Service find that a six-lane highway cutting right through panther country would have ‘no adverse effect’ on the remaining population?”
Perhaps ironically, FWS now takes the position that there is not enough remaining habitat to allow the panther to recover in Florida. Yet, during this period FWS did not object to a single project to protect the panther. Moreover, PEER charges that the agency is continuing to take actions which will doom the iconic cat to a future as what FWS staff call “a zoo species”:
- Despite the massive loss of panther habitat to development, FWS has yet to designate a single acre of critical habitat to protect the panther from further intrusions;
- At the request of developers, FWS shrank the panther consultation area by nearly 900,000 acres, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, meaning that the agency does not even review new construction inside this large zone; and
- FWS is now encouraging a new developer-financed “Panther Protection” plan to develop another 45,000 acres of panther habitat in Collier County alone.
“Substantively, the Obama record on endangered species looks just like the Bush record but with a little more lipstick,” Ruch added, pointing to last week’s White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors as an example of the cosmetic self-congratulatory press event now in vogue. “Outside of zoos, soon the only place Florida panthers will be seen is on the state’s personalized license plates.”