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Federal agency rejects habitat protection for Florida panthers

For the second time, federal wildlife officials have rejected a request that they designate thousands of square miles of South Florida as critical habitat for the Florida panther.

Although the Florida panther has been on the endangered species list for 40 years, the government has never officially designated what its "critical habitat" would be. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not objected to any development affecting panthers since 1993.

Designating a certain area as critical habitat for the panther would require increased scrutiny when developers, farmers and miners want to alter the swamps and forests where the big cats live.

The decision, announced Thursday by the agency, has left U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings extremely troubled, according to spokeswoman Lale Mamaux, who promised Hastings would be following up on the issue.

Last year, Hastings, D-Miami, sent a letter to the White House urging President Barack Obama to grant the panthers their critical habitat. The letter was co-signed by Reps. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Alan Grayson, D-Orlando.

Panthers are Florida's state animal. About 100 prowl the forests and swamps in an area that begins at the Caloosahatchee River and stretches down through Everglades National Park. Last year a record 17 panthers were killed by cars and trucks, and one was shot.

After five years of silence, in 2008 Fish and Wildlife rejected a 2003 petition to designate critical habitat for the panther. Paul Souza, the head of the agency's Vero Beach office, said he feared limiting development in panther habitat might "cause unintended harm by inducing negative public sentiment" toward the animal.

So last year, on the same day Obama was sworn in as president, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida submitted a new petition for critical habitat. Several months later a coalition of groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity filed a similar petition.

Both petitions focused on an area known as the Primary Zone, which covers 3,548 square miles in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties. A 2006 study by scientists defined that as the minimum area essential to support the existing panther population. But a 9,000-home development named Big Cypress has been proposed for more than 3,000 acres of the Primary Zone.

The developer of that project is now working with three state or national environmental groups — Audubon of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife and the Florida Wildlife Federation — on tailoring a plan that would offer enhanced protection for some panther habitat while still allowing development in some areas.

In announcing Thursday's decision, Souza said his agency believes a cooperative approach is a better way to go.

In the meantime, he said, "We believe our current strategy and priorities are the best paths forward at this time."

Conservancy president Andrew McElwaine said he and his allies at the Sierra Club strongly disagree with the decision, and Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said it "is at odds with the law and places the Florida panther at greater risk of extinction. This denial will not stand."

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com.

Federal agency rejects habitat protection for Florida panthers 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 9:38pm]
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