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Conservancy petitions Obama administration to designate critical habitat for Florida panthers

By Staff | Jan 22, 2009

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has filed a petition with Secretary Salazar of the United States Department of the Interior to provide additional legal protection for the endangered Florida panther to help prevent its extinction.

Only an estimated 90 to 100 Florida panthers remain today, almost all within South Florida. Because of these low numbers, they are considered at extremely high risk of extinction. Although there are provisions to protect the panther provided by the Endangered Species Act, designation of critical habitat, a key component of the Act, has yet to be undertaken.

Additionally, Florida panthers are known as “umbrella species” – meaning that the loss of their habitat is the loss of habitat important to numerous other imperiled species, as well as lands critical to preserving our water quality and drinking water supply.

The Conservancy petition seeks to designate those lands needed to preserve the panther by asking the Interior Department to utilize best available science and designate the Florida panther’s critical habitat. The petition requests that the panther’s “primary zone,” be included in the definition of critical habitat.

In 2006, the primary zone – which covers a portion of eastern Collier, Lee and Hendry Counties – was defined by scientists as the minimum area essential to support the existing panthers The Conservancy also seeks designation of lands currently defined as “secondary” and “dispersal zones,” which scientists have determined to be necessary for establishment of expanded populations for the long-term recovery of the panther.

“This designation is long overdue,” said Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine. “It will resolve once and for all those lands which should be protected and those which can be available for development.”

McElwaine also pointed out that the panther primary zone should be the minimum amount of land designated as critical habitat.

“Designation of critical habitat should form the basis for management decisions that affect the panther” said Jennifer Hecker, natural resource policy manager, “Once critical habitat is designated, the Endangered Species Act requires Federal agencies to limit the granting of development permits that may adversely affect or interfere with the recovery of the panther.”

Since the 1930s, at least one-third of the forested land in South Florida has been cleared for agricultural and residential development. Continued development worsens the plight of the panther, jeopardizing its recovery from the brink of extinction. Twenty-three panthers died in 2009 and three have been killed in the past three weeks.

The Conservancy advocates for protection of the panther’s primary zone and has opposed projects such as the proposed 3,700-acre Town of Big Cypress, which would destroy more than 3,400 acres of primary panther habitat. The Conservancy believes that decisions impacting such large areas of Florida panther habitat should be made after a comprehensive public process to designate and protect critical habitat, not through individual permit decisions or through voluntary, private sector initiatives.

If the Secretary of the Interior accepts the Conservancy’s petition they will begin a public process for the designation which will include public hearings in South Florida. Ultimately, critical habitat designation would be adopted through the federal rulemaking process.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Conservancy Nature Center are located at 1450 Merrihue Drive (off Goodlette-Frank Road at 14th Avenue North) in Naples. For more information, visit the Conservancy Web site at www.conservancy.org or call 239-262-0304.