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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.