The federal government's shameful record of protecting the Florida panther is leading the state's official animal straight to its extinction. The federal wildlife agency, succumbing to pressure from development interests, has opened vast tracts of panther habitat to construction, manipulated scientific data and stalled a management plan for saving the species. The Obama administration needs to rethink this approach before the big, graceful cat is lost for good.
The sad story of the panther's demise has the same elements of so many Florida development stories, as St. Petersburg Times staff writer Craig Pittman chronicled in a series of reports last week. Money and politics have contributed over more than a decade to deny the panther the protection it deserves under the Endangered Species Act. For decades, biologists have known that maintaining enough land for these wide-ranging predators was key to saving the species. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not blocked a single development that altered panther habitat. Former employees say every time they tried, "we were told that politically it would be a disaster," one agency retiree told the Times. Another employee said his bosses told him to inflate the number of breeding panthers to quash any fears about extinction.
The head of the South Florida office of the wildlife service said saving "the panther is arguably the greatest species conservation challenge in the country." His agency's actions are a large reason why. Even as the state brought in Texas cougars in 1995 to breed with the Florida panther and boost the population, the wildlife service since then has approved 113 development projects that would wipe out more than 42,000 acres of habitat if built. The construction of new houses, roads and new airport facilities in southwest Florida not only squeezed the panthers further and fragmented their habitat, it also made it more likely the cats would be killed by cars.
The wildlife service also considered development projects in isolation, when the real danger is the cumulative impact that building projects have on panther habitat. Former employees said agency higher-ups frustrated their efforts to look at development in comprehensive terms. The agency also failed to adhere to its policy of "no net loss" on panther habitat, which itself was a route for watering down challenges to development projects. Pittman found that since 1995, the federal government has required that 30,000 acres of panther habitat be preserved — 12,000 acres less than what it has allowed to be destroyed.
The Obama administration should change course by settling a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that calls on the federal government to establish critical habitat for the panther. A group of experts convened in 1999 by the wildlife service charted a course for saving and restoring land in South Florida — but that effort was shelved by agency bosses who turned instead to a land-swap proposal backed by the very developers who would build on the panther habitat. The state can have an honest debate about the future of the panther and the trade-offs the public and private sectors should shoulder to save the species. And there is a middle ground between barring development in some habitats and barring none at all. At the very least, the public should have confidence that the government is not cooking the science or the numbers.