Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Lawsuit accuses Obama administration of failing to protect Florida panther

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.

Lawsuit accuses Obama administration of failing to protect Florida panther 02/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 8:48am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trump meeting with G-7 leaders after going on offensive


    TAORMINA, Italy — In the Middle East, President Donald Trump was feted with pageantry, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel seemingly in competition to outdo the other with the warmth of their welcomes and the depth of their pledges of cooperation.

    From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni arrive for the group photo at the G7 Taormina summit on the island of Sicily on Friday  in Taormina, Italy. [Getty Images]
  2. Perspective: As the toll climbs, advocates bring renewed attention to Florida gun violence


    Times Staff Writer

    Like most 12-year-old girls, Ra'Mya Eunice loved slumber parties.

    The Empire State Building in New York City was bathed in tangerine light last year to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day. It was part of the Wear Orange campaign led by the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety. [Courtesy of Everytown for Gun Safety]
  3. Lawyer says Kushner willing to cooperate with investigators


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is willing to cooperate with federal investigators looking into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, his attorney said.

    In this May 23 photo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, left, and his wife Ivanka Trump watch during a visit by President Donald Trump to Yad Vashem to honor the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. The Washington Post is reporting that the FBI is investigating meetings that Trump's son-in-law, Kushner, had in December 2016, with Russian officials. [AP photo]
  4. Muslim faith greater than fear for Wharton's Rania Samhouri (w/video)


    TAMPA — Rania Samhouri graduated Monday night from Wharton High School, and many times throughout the ceremony she flashed back to a moment that changed her life.

     Rania Samhouri stretches after track practice on Monday April 24, 2017 at Wharton High School in Tampa, Florida. Rania, who is Muslim, recently started wearing her hijab during track competitions. She graduates from Wharton this year and will attend University of South Florida on scholarship next year.
  5. Deputies seek two men in attempted armed home invasion robbery in Seminole


    Detectives are searching for two men they say broke into a home in Seminole Thursday night in an attempted armed robbery.