April 21, 2011 (Fort Myers, FL) – Florida panthers are perishing in record numbers raising new doubts about the survival of the highly endangered iconic predator, according to a coalition of groups which today filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The appeal seeks to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect what is left of the panther's rapidly shrinking habitat in the midst of sprawling development in South Florida.
According to official figures, 23 panthers were killed last year, and 11 more have already died in 2011, mostly due to collisions with cars. The 2011 figures may be understated, as some recent panther deaths have not been publicly posted because they are still under official investigation. Less than 100 Florida Panthers survive in the wild – clinging to less than five percent of their historic range.
"At this rate," says Eric E. Huber, Sierra Club Senior Staff Attorney, who is lead counsel for the groups, "any possibility that the panther will recover will soon be lost forever unless our legal effort is successful.”
The Florida Panther has been listed as an endangered species for more than 40 years. A recent ruling dismissed a legal effort to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the Florida Panther. That ruling is being appealed today. The case was filed in February, 2010 by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility PEER) and the Council of Civic Associations, challenging the Service's denial of their petitions to designate critical habitat which would give the panther the greatest protection available under the federal Endangered Species Act and enable its recovery from the brink of extinction. Andrew McElwaine, President of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, one of five groups that filed suit challenging the Service's refusal to designate critical habitat, pointed out that "in effect, the Judge said we can't force the Service to protect the last vestiges of panther habitat because the panther has been endangered for too long. We trust the 11th Circuit will reverse."
In dismissing the groups’ lawsuit on April 6, 2011, the federal district judge recognized the panther's gravely imperiled status, calling it "one of the rarest large mammals in the United States" and "one of the most endangered large mammals in the world." Nevertheless, he ruled that since the panther was listed as endangered before critical habitat provisions were added to the law the Service’s decision was entirely discretionary and thus not subject to judicial review.
"You can't protect endangered species without protecting the places they live and that’s what needs to happen to give the Florida panther any shot at survival," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We’re confident that the appellate court will recognize that the Interior Department has the authority and the urgent responsibility to protect critical habitat for the panther, which is disappearing as gated subdivisions and strip malls replace forests and wetlands in South Florida."
Ann Hauck, of the Council of Civic Associations, states: "The Service has not issued a single jeopardy Biological Opinion for the entire Southeastern United States since 1993, even as unchecked development has caused increasing panther deaths. The Florida panther is going to disappear forever unless the federal government undertakes protective measures that work."
“Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an extinction strategy rather than a recovery strategy for the Florida panther,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Service’s science has been manipulated to mask the truly dire plight of the panther.
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