Endangered Florida panthers feel the squeeze

The big cats need plenty of space, which can put them in conflict with expanding development in the state.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Conservationists, developers, and residents take sides over the Florida panther. Only an estimated 100 remain in the wild.
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As southwest Florida struggles through the recession, the highly endangered Florida panther, which has lost much of its habitat to strip malls and gated communities, might have been expected to benefit from tough times.

But efforts to save the official state animal – only about 100 remain in the wild – have raised questions over whether the cats’ survival is compatible with more development. Even with thousands of foreclosed and unsold homes glutting the market, new communities are in planning stages.

The big problem for the panthers is that their habitat overlaps populated areas and they need quite a bit of space to survive, say conservationists.

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Traveling alone, a male panther requires about 200 square miles of territory and is liable to kill other males who venture onto its turf.

Cars are the other major panther menace, killing at least eight so far this year, including three in one week, although roadside fences and highway underpasses have been constructed in some areas to block the felines from running across roads.

Weighing up to 150 pounds, panthers are sleek hunters, capable of overcoming a deer or a wild boar.

When panthers yawn, they flash no-nonsense wildcat fangs. Instead of the expected roar, however, they let out mewling chirps that sound as though they could have come from a pet kitten.

Few people admit to being completely opposed to the panthers, but the animals have stirred up some resentment among Floridians because they pass through residential areas and sometimes attack pets. There are no recorded instances of a panther attacking a person.

Last spring a panther was found shot. The perpetrator has not been caught.

Recent concerns over the panthers’ survival have focused on a proposed new development in Collier County called Big Cypress, where Collier Enterprises is planning a town of 9,000 homes, plus businesses, retail stores, schools, and parks.

Big Cypress would occupy 2,800 acres, but the developers say they would preserve approximately three times that much land.

However, much of the development’s footprint is in panther territory, specifically land deemed essential to the species’ “long-term viability” in a peer-reviewed journal article by primary author Randy Kautz, a wildlife ecologist..

For more than two decades, scientists have tracked panthers by outfitting them with radio collars and picking up the signals from small planes. This data shows that panthers often appear on what will become the Big Cypress town site.

Panthers “want to avoid urbanized areas,” says Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental group opposed to Big Cypress. “The concern now is that we’re cornering them.”

In southwest Florida, real estate is so central to the economy that street hawkers wave signs pointing drivers to the newest piece of heaven “from the 200s.” So, if panthers disappeared altogether, it would be difficult to blame any particular development. But Big Cypress has provoked opposition because it’s seen as the advent of a decades-long buildup that would transform a sparsely inhabited part of inland Florida into an urban area with a population that could top 400,000, roughly the size of Miami.

Opponents and proponents debate the economic benefits of Big Cypress: Environmentalists say the local economy should focus on agriculture and tourism, instead of what they call unsustainable building. Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta notes that one upside of the development is job creation for the county’s poorest residents.

Big Cypress would be built within the framework of a planning initiative called Rural Land Stewardship (RLS). Focused on Collier Country, this plan specifies that a group of major landowners would give up rights to build on large sections of their holdings in exchange for being allowed to build densely on a smaller portion of it.

Developed in the early years of this decade, RLS was designed to give landowners an incentive to preserve environmentally significant property.

A recent version of the plan would set aside more than 90,000 acres (140 square miles) of land for nature conservation while zoning approximately 40,000 acres for farmland and 45,000 acres for development.

The plan has support from many local environmental groups, including Audubon of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Florida Wildlife Federation. Resigned to additional development, the organizations see this as an opportunity to influence developers on land use.

“Do you pursue a utopian, idealistic route or do you look at all the options and find something that can actually be accomplished on the ground?” asks Bradley Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society. He believes that the land RLS preserves makes it an acceptable compromise.

Christian Spilker, a vice president of Collier Enterprises, says that the RLS plan gives developers incentives to preserve panther habitat without hamstringing them with excessive regulation.

“We own this land, and we have the right to look into development potential on any particular acre of it,” he says.

As development plans advance through various permitting processes, the company wants to avoid a federal designation of “critical habitat” for the Florida panther. That designation adds complications for projects like Big Cypress, which require federal permits.

Instead, Collier hopes to comply with the Endangered Species Act through a plan to “minimize and mitigate the impacts” of Big Cypress.

If Florida panthers were declared endangered today, they would probably receive critical habitat protection.  However, the federal government first categorized the panthers as endangered in 1967, before “critical habitat” was on the books.

After an effort to close this loophole failed last fall, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida repetitioned the US Department of the Interior after President Obama’s inauguration, hoping the Democratic administration would be friendlier to the panthers’ cause. The result is pending.

A critical habitat designation wouldn’t necessarily stop Big Cypress, but it would make the development process more difficult. If pressed, Mr. Spilker says, Collier would consider changing its plans for Big Cypress and building one house per five-acre lot, which wouldn’t trigger critical habitat’s “onerous” regulations but also wouldn’t force land to be set aside as panther habitat.

The conservancy calls that an idle threat. If there was a market for inland “ranchettes,” far from shopping and other amenities, developers would have built far more of them already, the group says.

Big Cypress would be in the primary zone, an area the Kautz paper considers crucial to panther survival. However, as Spilker showed a visitor around the site, he emphasized the “moonscape” of vast, sandy tomato fields. The industrial farmland belies the perception, he says, “that we’re bulldozing a cypress swamp where panthers are sitting in the trees.”

Such farmland has “no function for wildlife,” which, he adds, would be better off on the land the developer would preserve under the Rural Land Stewardship plan.

However, Mark Lotz, a panther biologist with the state wildlife agency, wrote in an e-mail: “Panther are habitat generalists. They traverse farmland and hunt deer on its fringes.”

In Collier County, a coalition of large landowners and environmentalists has commissioned six scientists to suggest guidelines on dividing land between development and preservation. The report’s authors include Mr. Kautz and others who declined to comment.

A draft copy recommends alterations but assumes that building will occur on land the existing study says is critical to panther survival.

Because panthers have such far-ranging territorial requirements, protecting their habitat can save other threatened species as well.

“The panther is like the child in a divorce,” Mr. McElwaine says, quoting a colleague. “It gets all the attention but isn’t really the issue.”

For the conservancy, protecting panther land saves cats but also carries an added benefit: potentially blocking development in what many Floridians still think of as paradise.

Editor's note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor's main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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