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The Florida panther could go extinct if this toll road is built, emails say

It would “basically be a disaster for the panther,” a federal biologist wrote in assessment.

One of the controversial toll roads approved by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis this year would be a “disaster” for the Florida panther and potentially render the species extinct, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist wrote this year in a candid email to his supervisor.

The road, which is proposed to run from Polk to Collier counties and has been referred to as the Heartland Parkway, would run through the heart of some of the last remaining panther habitat and cause more of the big cats to be killed by cars, the biologist wrote.

Compounding the disaster, he wrote, is that the project’s suburban sprawl would swallow even more of the panther’s dwindling habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "has serious, serious concerns about the heartland expressway and likely the two other corridors should this legislative proposal go forward,” wrote John Wrublik, a biologist and transportation specialist in the agency’s Vero Beach office, in March. “This project would have very serious impacts on the Florida panther (basically a disaster for the panther).”

Wrublik also wrote that the road, which would run from Collier to Polk counties, would “potentially jeopardize the species.”

In environmental speak, “jeopardy” is a legal term that means one thing: extinction.

READ THE EMAILS HERE

The stunning admission is the first publicly-known statement by a state or federal agency warning of the roads’ impact on endangered wildlife, a fear that has rallied environmental groups to oppose the roads.

Wrublik’s email was not necessarily the official position of the federal agency, which has a mission to preserve and protect endangered wildlife. The agency is expected to do a formal assessment of the project when more details about the proposed roads are known.

“Eventually you guys will get to see us reviewing and evaluating those plans,” Wrublik’s boss, Mark Cantrell, told the road’s task force members on Monday.

But if the agency determines the road poses an existential threat to the panther, it would create a potential legal fight that could doom the entire project, or at the least, dramatically change it, experts said.

RELATED: DeSantis approved these toll roads. So where’s the reason to build them?

Wrublik’s emails were obtained by the environmental nonprofit South Florida Wildlands Association through a Freedom of Information Act request. The association’s executive director, Matthew Schwartz, said Wrublik’s email was proof of the seriousness of the threat to one of Florida’s most iconic animals.

“It was a very honest appraisal,” Schwartz said. “It’s impossible for them to run a highway through that area and not have it be a disaster for the panther.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman declined to say whether the agency shared Wrublik’s sentiment, and Cantrell did not tell task force members about the threat to the panther during Monday’s meeting.

But in an October letter to the Florida Department of Transportation, a top U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said there were “significant concerns about the potential effects of these projects.”

“A new highway in any of the study areas has the potential to result in significant adverse impacts to the diverse fish, wildlife and planet resources; including many threatened species,” wrote Larry Williams, the agency’s state supervisor for ecological services, without specifying any species, including the panther.

RELATED: Florida’s toll road projects lack big support, except from road builders

The Florida panther once roamed across the southeast United States. Over time, humans have driven it to just a small section of southwest Florida, mostly south of the Caloosahatchee River, which starts near Lake Okeechobee and ends near Fort Myers.

The big cat is a type of puma, like mountain lions and cougars, and the only type of puma in the eastern United States. Once considered extinct, scientists bred the Florida panther with cougars in the 1990s, when fewer than 30 panthers roamed the wild. The panther has since made significant strides, with more than 200 believed to be in the wild.

Vehicles remain its largest threat. Of the 26 panthers that have died this year, 22 were killed after being struck by vehicles, including multiple that were just weeks or months old, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Building a new road, or significantly upgrading a new one, would be “a setback to decades of panther recovery,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife and its representative on the federal Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team.

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Recently, female panthers have been spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River, a sign the population has been healthy enough to cross that significant obstacle, she said.

“This highway, as we all believe it could be proposed, is going to run right entirely through that area,” said Fleming, who is also on the Department of Transportation’s task force for the proposed road.

The state’s transportation department is still in the early stages of the roads. In addition to a toll road linking Polk and Collier counties, another road would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia and another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast.

Their routes, and how much they will cost, are unknown and will be decided by the Department of Transportation. Because she said it’s so early, department spokeswoman Beth Frady downplayed the significance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist’s warning.

"I would caution any statements that make sweeping habitat impact assumptions,” Frady said in a statement. "The department has been very clear that protection of the Florida panther is paramount. Should a habitat need arise further in the process, the department has and can use design solutions to protect natural habitat.”

Those solutions could include buying and conserving new land, shifting the road away from panther habitat or creating wildlife crossings, which are openings under the road that give animals an alternative to crossing in the path of vehicles. Often they are paired with fencing along the road that guides the animals to the crossings.

Fleming said those crossings actually helped the Florida panther when Interstate 75 was extended from Naples to Miami. But that stretch of I-75, known as “alligator alley," also has limited exits and virtually no development along the route.

RELATED: Florida’s new toll roads are supposed to help these counties. But they don’t want it.

In this case, development is the primary purpose of the toll roads.

The idea to create Florida’s largest expansion of toll roads in 60 years was an idea that had been rejected by three previous governors. It was revived last year by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Transportation Builders Association. Both organizations represent companies that stand to make millions from the roads' construction.

Galvano said one of the primary reasons for the roads was to boost the economies of rural Florida.

“They’re literally paving over and turning a rural natural part of Florida into suburbia,” Schwartz said. "That’s their goal."

The Legislature approved the roads this year and assigned an extremely aggressive timeline for their construction, which they said must start in 2022. DeSantis signed the bill into law in May.

That unusual process is one of the main reasons why the roads have been so controversial. Road projects typically start organically, with costly studies that examine needs and other projections carried out by local and state transportation officials. To date, the Department of Transportation still does not have evidence showing the roads are needed.

In his email, written while lawmakers were still debating the bill, Wrublik wrote that the introduction of new residential and commercial development in undeveloped land would “result in the loss of significant amount of habitat for panther and other species."

Fleming said it was hard to know for sure because there are so few details about the roads, which she called a “political stunt.” But she said the emails are “absolutely raising valid points."

“I hope people are paying attention.”

Proposed corridors for three new toll road expansions. [ LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times ]

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