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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

“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.

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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.

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