SUNSHINE STATE NEWS
Florida Panther Habitat Needed, Congressman Insists
By Kevin Derby
Pointing to an incident over the weekend in which a Florida panther was killed by a vehicle, U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., doubled down on his call for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate a “critical habitat” for the official animal of the Sunshine State.
“Each year, the Florida panther population continues to shrink in size as more big cats are hit and killed by cars because they lack a safe habitat,” Buchanan said on Monday. “Although these panthers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they face extinction because they have no protected area to live and repopulate.”
“We should not stand by and do nothing as yet another endangered species is wiped off the earth,” Buchanan added. “We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.”
Earlier this month, members of the Florida congressional delegation urged President Barack Obama to add more protection for Florida panthers, calling on him to create a critical habitat designation for the Florida panther. In 1967, the Florida panther was one of 14 mammals included in the launch of the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., led the letter which was also signed by Buchanan, fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson and Democratic U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.
“The Florida panther is one of the most endangered species in the world as less than 180 of them survive today,” the representatives wrote Obama. “As you know, the two greatest threats to the Florida panther are the loss of habitat and automobile-related deaths, both of which are caused by increased development in environmentally sensitive areas. The best available science suggests that current lands in conservation do not provide enough suitable habitat area to support even the limited number of existing panthers. Further, on November 28th, two more panthers were killed by cars.
“As members of the Florida delegation, we are writing to request your support in establishing a critical habitat designation for the endangered Florida panther,” they added. “The Florida panther was listed as an endangered species in 1973, but critical habitat has never been established, even though the Endangered Species Act includes a requirement for the designation of critical habitat for endangered species. In other words, the Florida panther is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, unfortunately its home is not.
“It is of great importance to designate a critical habitat not only because it would preserve and encourage the growth of the current population of Florida panthers, but also because it would help to protect other valuable environmental resources, such as wetlands, aquifer-recharge areas, drinking water supplies and the habitat of other endangered species,” the representatives wrote. “At the top of the food chain, Florida panthers help keep feral hog numbers in check and deer, raccoon and other prey populations balanced and healthy. Moreover, a designation of critical habitat does not mean that no further development is allowed in an area, it simply requires additional review when projects requiring federal permits would impact habitats considered essential to preventing the Florida panther from going extinct.
“We urge you to ensure the continued existence of the Florida panther and the preservation of Southwest Florida’s natural resources and unique character by supporting the designation of critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther,” they wrote in conclusion. “Thank you for your time and consideration. The decision to take action now will provide a historic opportunity for protecting the Earth’s most endangered ‘umbrella species’ – the Florida panther.”
FWS is in charge of critical habitats and, on its website, defines the role of development in those areas.
“A critical habitat designation does not necessarily restrict further development,” the FWS noted. “It is a reminder to federal agencies that they must make special efforts to protect the important characteristics of these areas.
“Only activities that involve a federal permit, license, or funding, and are likely to destroy or adversely modify the area of critical habitat will be affected,” the FWS added. “If this is the case, the Service will work with the federal agency and, where appropriate, private or other landowners to amend their project to allow it to proceed without adversely affecting the critical habitat. Thus, most federal projects are likely to go forward, but some will be modified to minimize harm to critical habitat.”
Back in 2013, there were 160 Florida panthers in the wild but current estimates have it as high as 180. As low as that number is, it was far worse in the 1970s when the population dropped to around 20.