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Don’t build an unnecessary road that would kill Florida panthers | Editorial

A toll road through panther habitat is a bad idea that would put Florida’s state animal in peril.

Cars are the leading killer of the iconic, endangered Florida panther, and yet the state is rushing forward with an ill-conceived plan that could push a toll road right through the heart of panther habitat. This is a bad idea, and it should be stopped before it’s too late.

The road often referred to as the Heartland Parkway would run from Polk to Collier counties, one of three controversial toll road study areas approved by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis this year after being pushed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, with support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Transportation Builders Association.

A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service minced no words about the danger to the Florida panther. “This project would have very serious impacts on the Florida panther (basically a disaster for the panther),” John Wrublik, a biologist and transportation specialist in the agency’s Vero Beach office, wrote in an email earlier this year. It would “potentially jeopardize the species.” His view is not the official position of the agency -- at least not yet -- but a road like this that could threaten the Florida panther simply should not be built.

Galvano said the biologist’s concern is “completely overstated." But the numbers tell a different story. Just this year, cars have already killed at least 5 percent and perhaps more than 10 percent of the state’s population of adult Florida panthers. There are between 120 and 230 young adult and adult panthers in the wild, and 26 have been killed this year, 22 by cars. Eight panthers were less than a year old. One was a female kitten of no more than 10 weeks. Imagine what would happen if a busy toll road filled with the panthers’ leading killer cut right through their habitat.

The Florida panther literally needs room to roam, and laying down asphalt in the middle of where it lives -- and encouraging development that could eliminate even more of its territory -- is wrong. Fencing and wildlife crossings could not solve the problems this road would create.

Breeding programs, environmental education and conservation work by dedicated scientists and policy experts have all done their part in recent years to heighten awareness of the glory of the Florida panther. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team has trekked across the state several times this decade to prove the viability of a wildlife corridor -- a combination of public and private lands that would give the Florida panther, the Florida black bear and other key species enough space to thrive and range all the way to Georgia. That’s the infrastructure Florida should focus on, not this toll road that would take its toll on panthers.

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

Development can occur even as wild Florida is maintained, but it has to be done responsibly. The plan for this toll road is not an example of enlightened stewardship. In fact, the Florida Department of Transportation so far has no evidence that the road is even needed. And yet, most of the more than the 500 panthers that have died since 1972 were in this broad study area.

This is no time to roll back the success in bringing back the Florida panther, which was teetering on the brink of extinction a generation ago. In their wisdom, the children of Florida voted in 1982 to make the Florida panther the state animal. Today’s politicians should remember the voices of those children and protect the panther rather than pave over paradise.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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