With only about 100 panthers remaining in the wild, conservation groups push for critical habitat designation in court after 23 panthers were killed in 2010
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Florida panthers are close to making their last stand in the swampy grasslands and forests of the Everglades. At least 23 panthers were killed last year and 11 have died in 2011. With only about 100 of the cats remaining in the wild, their survival may depend on the designation of critical habitat, a step the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has this refused to take. Read further information on Florida Panther mortality rates
But that may change. A coalition of environmental groups has filed an appeal in federal court, seeking to force the agency to protect what is left of the panthers rapidly dwindling habitat in the midst of sprawling development in South Florida. The animals only remain in about 5 percent of their historic range.
“We have a very limited population due to inbreeding depression,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center of Biological Diversity. Robinson said the population was boosted by a temporary introduction of nine West Texas pumas that were subsequently removed from Florida after they reproduced.
The federal recovery plan calls for protecting a primary core zone and a secondary dispersal zone north of the Caloosahatchee River — but nothing is a muscular as a critical habitat designation, Robinson said. Click here to visit the USFWS Florida panther web page.
The panthers have been on the endangered species list since 1967 and the federal government has not come close to fulfilling its legal and moral obligation to recover the species — mainly due to the political influence of deep-pocketed special interests, according to Robinson. Efforts on behalf of the panther by conservation groups are detailed at the Center for Biological Diversity website.
While a critical habitat designation isn’t technically required under the Endangered Species Act in all cases, the law does require federal agencies to take all necessary measures toward recovery. And that hasn’t happened in Florida, Robinson said.
“At this rate, any possibility that the panther will recover will soon be lost forever unless our legal effort is successful,” said Eric E. Huber, a seniror staff attorney with the Sierra Club and lead counsel for the groups.
The appeal is in response to a recent ruling that dismissed an earlier legal challenge to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the Florida Panther.
The original 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.
“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,” said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
In dismissing the lawsuit in early April, 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.
The coalition of conservation groups claims the agency only has limited discretion for species listed before the habitat provisions were added in 1978.
“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,”Robinson said. “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.”
“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,” said Ann Hauck, of the Council of Civic Associations. “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,” said Jeff Ruch director of the watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.