SARASOTA — A coalition of environmental and civic groups sued the Obama administration Thursday over its refusal to declare 1.3 million acres as critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther.
The suit, announced at a news conference led by national and state officials of the Sierra Club, targets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has not blocked any development in panther habitat since 1993.
"It is a scandal that we are filing this lawsuit," said Carl Pope, national president of the Sierra Club, blasting federal officials for allowing the loss of panther habitat. He contended that the panther, Florida's state animal, is on the verge "of being pushed over the edge into extinction."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said his agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Panthers once roamed the Southeast, but now only about 100 panthers remain in the wild, prowling the swamps and forests south of the Caloosahatchee River in South Florida.
Although they have been classified as endangered since the first endangered list was issued in 1967, the agency has never designated any place as critical to spare from development —- a fact the agency frequently cites when approving projects that alter panther habitat.
In 2002 a group of panther and habitat mapping experts who were convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the federal agency declare the area where the panthers now live as critical habitat. Doing so would subject any plans to alter that habitat — by development, farming or mining — to increased regulatory scrutiny and additional requirements to make up for the loss of land. It would also make it harder to spend federal money on new roads there.
But the agency did not follow that recommendation. Since then it has twice rejected petitions by environmental groups requesting it declare critical habitat. In one case, it said it feared that putting additional protections on panther habitat would "cause unintended harm by inducing negative public sentiment" toward the animal.
Instead, the agency is now working with a separate coalition of environmental groups and Collier County's major landowners to craft a cooperative plan to protect some habitat while still allowing development.
Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups working on the plan, warned that the lawsuit is likely to "damage future efforts to restore the panther within areas of its historic range." And Tom Reese, who represents the Florida Wildlife Federation in negotiations on the plan, contended that their plan will offer stronger protections than any "critical habitat" designation.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fort Myers Thursday, concerns more than 3 million acres in fast-growing Collier, Lee and Hendry counties. So far no hearing or trial dates have been scheduled, said Gary Davis, the attorney for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, one of the groups joining the Sierra Club in pursuing the case. The others are the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council of Civic Associations, a Bonita Springs activist group. Federal officials have two months to respond.
Another environmental group, Wildlaw, sought in 2003 to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare critical habitat for the panther. It took the agency five years to say no. At the time, environmental activists blamed the Bush administration's well-known dislike for the Endangered Species Act.
So on the day President Barack Obama took office, the conservancy filed a new critical habitat petition, and it was soon joined by the other environmental groups. Their petitions are based on the 2002 scientific findings from the experts convened by the agency itself.
Conservancy officials have met repeatedly with Obama administration officials to urge them to take action, and even lined up five Florida members of Congress to join in a letter encouraging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to provide the panther with enhanced habitat protection.
But last week, in a letter signed by Paul Souza, the head of the agency's South Florida office, the Fish and Wildlife Service again rejected the idea of a critical habitat designation, explaining, "We believe our current strategy and priorities are the best paths forward at this time."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.