Environment: Unchecked population growth & development are threatening Florida’s wildlife

State’s wildlife is squeezed from all sides

Oceanic birds and birds that rely on coastal habitat face challenges related to climate change, according to the 2011 State of the Birds report. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Oceanic birds and birds that rely on coastal habitat face challenges related to climate change, according to the 2011 State of the Birds report. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The rapid growth of Florida’s population, combined with laissez-faire development policies and the lack of strong environmental regulations is putting the state’s natural resources at risk, conservation advocates said in a year-end press release.

The warning came as the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing that Florida will soon overtake New York as the third-most populous state in the country, and as Florida’s wildlife continues to struggle in the face habitat loss, urban sprawl, water withdrawals and other effects of rapid human population growth in recent decades.

“As Florida’s human population growth breaks new records, incredible species like panthers and manatees are dying at record rates,” said Stephanie Feldstein, the Center for Biological Diversity’s population and sustainability director. “Florida is a beautiful, biodiversity-rich state, but it has a long history of replacing that beauty with condos and strip malls. If Florida doesn’t get its growth under control, development and concrete are all that will be left.”

Florida’s population doubles every 20 years. Census figures released today show there are currently more than 19.5 million people living in the state (New York has 19.6 million people). The growing population has overrun wildlife habitat in recent decades.

In addition to habitat loss, Florida’s coastal wildlife is feeling the squeeze between rising sea levels caused by climate change and development that prevents them from moving inland. A report released earlier this month by the Center found that more than half of Florida’s endangered species are at risk from sea-level rise, including Key deer, the West Indian manatee and five species of nesting turtles.

“Florida’s wildlife faces the double whammy of land lost to development and shorelines lost to rising seas,” said Feldstein. “They’re running out of options for where they can go. Just look at what’s happened to Florida panthers.”

Florida panthers once ranged throughout the southeastern United States, but now survive in a tiny area of South Florida, representing just 5 percent of its former range. The panthers were listed as endangered in 1967 because of habitat destruction and fragmentation through urban sprawl. Large numbers of panthers died as the expanding network of roads connecting Florida’s rapidly growing human population spread throughout its range. In 2012, a record high of 19 panthers were killed by vehicles, and today there are only an estimated 100 to 160 animals left in the wild.

There are a number of steps Florida can take to begin to address these problems, from improving access to family planning and reproductive health to enacting smart growth policies that protect habitat and coastal ecosystems, create room for species to move inland, and embrace energy efficiency.

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