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Feds want public comment on plan to develop panther habitat

The proposed rules would affect the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The proposed rules would affect the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Published Apr. 13, 2016

Federal officials want to hear from the public about whether to permit a plan to allow oil drilling, mining and development in Florida's panther habitat — and to allow the killing of some panthers — in exchange for a promise to preserve some of that land.

The officials are not only asking for comments on the proposal, but they're also holding public hearings, including one Tuesday night in Naples.

Among the landowners seeking a federal permit is Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy, whom Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2012.

Priddy's JB Ranch has lost at least 10 calves to hungry panthers, according to a University of Florida study, with each panther kill costing her $1,000.

Major landowners working with Priddy in pursuing the permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service include two sugar companies, Alico and King Ranch; the Half Circle L Ranch; Pacific Tomato Growers; English Brothers; and the Barron Collier Partnership and Collier Enterprises.

The proposal, known as the Eastern Collier Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, will set the rules for development on 177,000 acres in Collier County. The acreage stretches from the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest on its northern end to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve to the south.

Barron Collier Partnership and Collier Enterprises have been working for more than a decade on creating a new city — initially called Big Cypress, now nameless — that would put 10,000 residential homes on 4,000 acres of prime panther habitat in that area. Their website says the first homes should be available in 2018.

If approved, the permit would create what is known as a Habitat Conservation Plan, allowing development and other human activities to occur on part of it while preserving the rest to make up for the damage done.

Some undeveloped private land would be put under a conservation easement, in effect blocking any development from occurring there. That's why some environmental groups support it.

If the plan is approved, it would give a green light to all of those plans at once, rather than making the landowners go through separate permitting for each project. That's one reason some environmental groups oppose it.

Approval by the Fish and Wildlife Service would also give a green light to what's known as "incidental take" of endangered species in that area. The list of animals affected would include not only panthers but scrub jays, red-cockaded woodpeckers and Everglades snail kites. Under the Endangered Species Act, "take" means "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" a certain number of those animals.

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State officials estimate the current panther population is 100 to 180, far better than the 20 to 30 that remained in the mid 1990s. But as the population has expanded, the habitat has shrunk, gobbled up by new towns, new stores and even two new colleges.

A scientific study by top panther experts, published last fall, calls for protecting what's left.

"Because there is less panther habitat remaining than previously thought, we recommend that all remaining breeding habitat in south Florida should be maintained," concluded the authors of the study, "Landscape Analysis of Adult Panther Habitat."

Taxpayers helped Priddy and the other landowners pay for creating the Habitat Conservation Plan. In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service awarded a grant of nearly $150,000 to aid in "concluding the planning efforts" for it.

Feedback on the plan comes after wildlife officials announced two Florida panthers died over the weekend, according to CBS Miami. A male panther, about 6 months old, was hit by a vehicle in Collier County. The body of a another male panther, about 5 years old, was discovered along Interstate 75 in Lee County. It was also struck by a vehicle.

Sixteen panthers have been found dead so far in 2016, all but two killed by vehicles.

The comment period ends April 25.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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