BY JACLYN LOPEZ
JANUARY 23, 2019 07:31 PM, UPDATED JANUARY 23, 2019 08:31 PM
With some of the most powerful back legs of all the world’s big cats, Florida panthers can cover an astonishing 45 feet in a single bound when chasing prey or avoiding danger.
But those remarkable skills are no match for the panther’s chief predator and cause of premature death: automobiles.
In 2018 alone, 26 of these beautiful animals — considered to be among the world’s most endangered mammals — were run down while trying to cross the state’s choked roads. An analysis of 175 Florida panther deaths between 2014 and 2018 indicated that 101 of the big cats were killed in Collier County, the majority by vehicles.
That’s why a proposal from large landowners in eastern Collier County to plop a mega-development right in the middle of some of the panther’s most important remaining habitat is so insane.
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Landowners seek to convert 45,000 acres of habitat — land that scientists have said is critical to the Florida panther’s survival — into a sprawling development that by 2050 will attract up to 300,000 new residents and generate an additional million vehicle trips a day.
The upshot: Developers behind this ill-conceived plan want permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act to put an estimated 90,000 new homes in the middle of the panther’s core range.
Used most widely in Florida, California and Texas, so-called “habitat conservation plans” promise to protect a portion of land as habitat in exchange for permission to develop massive tracts of land in locations where the Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws might otherwise restrict or guide development.
Unfortunately, many studies have raised concerns about how well HCPs actually protect endangered plants and animals.
For example, in a 2010 study published in the Ecology Law Quarterly, Jessica Owley, a University at Buffalo School of Law professor, assessed four HCPs in California to determine how effective they were in mitigating harm to endangered species.
She characterized her findings as “alarming.” Federal agencies often had trouble even finding the HCP conservation agreements. County offices charged with recording the HCP’s property restrictions often had inadequate records of what those restrictions actually required.
“Such uncertainty,” she wrote, “calls into question this method of environmental conservation.”
Sadly, what she found in California is hardly an isolated problem. As land development evolves, local, state and federal agencies rarely have the time, staff or money to accurately assess whether HCPs’ promises of endangered species protections are ever carried out.
In the case of the proposed Collier County HCP, the problem is made worse by the fact that the land the developers would set aside is fragmented and would continue to be used for agriculture, development and oil and gas exploration..
Given that scientists tell us the panther cannot afford to lose even a single acre, the fact that the HCP would “preserve” some of the land while developing the rest is likely to slow progress that state and federal agencies have painstakingly made toward recovering the panther and may even undermine its continued survival.
For example, the current federal recovery plan states the Service will consider delisting the panther when three populations of at least 240 individuals each have been established and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured. This proposal makes that goal much more difficult to accomplish.
The proposed HCP assures ongoing sprawl into the Sunshine State’s ever-dwindling wild areas and offers little in return for Florida’s incredible wildlife.
The plan simply isn’t good enough for Florida’s endangered panthers or the majority of Floridians, who care deeply about preserving the state’s ever-more-endangered environmental heritage.
Jaclyn Lopez is Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.