In theory, the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserved 4,000 acres of raw land east of Fort Myers for the endangered Florida panther seems reasonable. The ranchers who have owned the property since 1947 get to keep grazing their cattle and make a significant amount of money by agreeing to not alter the tract in ways detrimental to the panther.
But make no mistake, Florida's "state animal" loses big time.
As reported Thursday by the St. Petersburg Times' Craig Pittman, the Milicevic family ranch is only marginally useful for panthers. Cats crowded out of their South Florida domain pass through it as they cross the Caloosahatchee River into new territory. In a three-tiered ranking system devised by panther researchers, this land falls in the third-ranked "dispersal zone.''
But that won't keep the Milicevics from cashing in. The federal government has authorized the family to sell up to $144 million worth of credits, or "panther habitat units'' to people who want to develop other panther-friendly habitat elsewhere.
Ideally, it's a win-win. The land is preserved without taxpayer investment. And there's nothing wrong with using the market to achieve an environmental good. But in this case, the federal government will allow development of property that falls in the panther's crucial habitat, dubbed "primary zone," if the owner buys credits from the Milicevics' inferior panther habitat.
It's as though someone traded your house for space on the sidewalk outside, then shoved you out and changed the locks.
The 4,000 acres does sit across an important panther travel route. So something needed to be done to keep that pathway open. But this is not the way to go about it. As Pittman notes, others with marginal land are lining up in hopes of cashing in the same way. Will the panther's prime breeding and hunting grounds be traded away piecemeal until what is left cannot sustain it?
The federal authorities charged with preserving panthers do not inspire much confidence with this latest move. And neither does their record. The Fish and Wildlife Service has not raised an objection to any development in panther habitat since 1993.
The panther has been on the endangered species list since 1967, and it has been literally losing ground ever since to every quick-buck artist with a plat and a plan.
It is past time to take this responsibility — this obligation — to future generations seriously. Save this graceful animal from oblivion. Don't sacrifice irreplaceable habitat with these dubious trades.
Learn to say no.