State Reps Write to Obama for Help in Florida Panther Protection
By Tiara Brown
Representatives and local activists are once again calling for President Barack Obama’s assistance in protecting the state’s dwindling population of Florida panthers. Members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote a letter this week urging Obama to aid state leaders in designating a critical habitat for the endangered species. 2015 hit a record high for Florida panther deaths, totaling 40 documented mortalities.
The nine signatures on the letter addressed to the nation’s leader included U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., Republican U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan and Curt Clawson, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.
Although Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is ultimately responsible for designating and enforcing critical wildlife habitats, the representatives are asking for support from the president.
“The Florida panther is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act,” the letter to Obama read. “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.”
Although the Florida panther has been listed as an endangered species since 1973, FWC has not established a critical habitat for the animals to use for growth or protection. According to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which mandates the safety of animals at risk of extinction, “harming a species” includes behaviors in which there is “significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”
Right now the cats themselves are protected from harm, but their homes are not. The ESA does not protect plants unless they are illegally collected on Federal land. Unfortunately for the Florida panther, most of their territories are not on Federal lands. The majority of the panther population can be found in commercial and residential areas near current or previous forested areas.
With the cats acting as top predators in Southwest Florida, they are often referred to as an “umbrella species.” Issues that affect the Florida panther population typically have a trickle-down effect, often harming small animals and their shared habitats as well.
“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,” the letter continues. “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.”
In the letter’s closing, the representatives specifically requested that Southwest Florida areas be used as a designation of critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther. Collier County’s Senior Natural Resources Specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Amber Crooks, is happy to hear that the state’s representatives are continuing their battle to receive a federal and state designation.
“This year has set a record for panther mortalities,” Crooks said. “It’s all tied to habitat loss. There are cats crossing roads looking for new home ranges and most of the recorded panther deaths are from motor vehicles. The cats are very territorial. They get in deadly disputes because they have limited habitats to choose from, which is another indication that their natural habitats need to be protected.”
“Development has been increasing over the past few years. Tens of thousands of acres of habitat have been lost in the past decade. We are at the point where making decisions about panther protection means doing what we can to protect them.”
According to Crooks, the Conservancy submitted a legal petition for critical habitat protection for the Florida panther in 2012, but the courts echoed that FWC has the power to place protection on certain areas throughout the state. FWC chose not to move forward in issuing a designated critical area, much to Crook’s dismay.
“They’re still endangered,” Crooks said. “Some say that the population is increasing, but as we continue to eat away at their habitat, we may not have enough room to support a viable population in the future. If we don’t have enough habitat, the panther will always struggle to recover. We may lose them.”
According to Crook, designating a critical habitat area would not bar developers from building on uninhabited lands or from expanding the housing market. Instead it would mean that more studies would be conducted to track the panther population’s movements, and another layer of review would need to be conducted to make sure that developers are not encroaching on an integral habitat for panther to recovery.
“What it may mean,” Crooks said. “Is that developments may need to modify or developers may need to move to different areas. It could mean more conservation land and more mitigation. Panthers prefer forest areas like flat woods or cypress, but they also use other types of habitats because they require a large area in order to satisfy needs for feeding and denning. Sometimes one territory can be 100-200 square miles. Many territories do overlap, but we’re talking about expansive areas needed to keep the populations healthy.”
At the present time, no steps have been to create a designated critical. For those who wish to learn more about the Florida panther population and their birth/death statistics, click here: http://www.floridapanthernet.org/index.php/pulse/#.VnLPORUrLIU. For more information or to support the Conservancy, click here: https://www.conservancy.org/our-work/policy/wildlife-and-habitat-protection.