Habitat’s for humanity? Bulldozers threaten the dwindling open space that panthers need to survive.
Meanwhile, some panthers unwittingly have eroded public support for their cause by stealing into backyards for prey.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in January 2006 that the top priority of its campaign to rescue the Florida panther from extinction was to “maintain” and “expand” its turf in southern Florida.
Before the end of the year, though, one of the agency’s top officials in Florida issued what amounted to an abrupt change of heart. In a three-paragraph memo, Paul Souza stripped federal regulations aimed at protecting panther habitat — trimming off nearly 900,000 acres, an area the size of Rhode Island.
The move ensured that developers and highway planners would save untold millions of dollars in “mitigation fees,” money used to transform select cow pastures and farm fields back into wilderness of greater value to panthers.
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Souza, the head of Fish and Wildlife’s South Florida Ecological Services Office in Vero Beach, emphasized at the time — and still does — that science drove the decision. A transportation official with Collier County, however, suggests otherwise: “The reason they changed it is because we asked them to change it,” Kevin Dugan said recently.
The episode has reopened old wounds with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critics, who have long suspected that the agency sides with developers over the animals it is charged with protecting.
Federal officials have never issued a “jeopardy opinion” to preserve panther habitat, an action that would essentially shut down a project. The result: More than 90,000 acres of critical panther land has been destroyed in exchange for only 30,000 acres set aside for them.
“It’s like they’re working for the developers and not the panthers,” said Laura Hartt of the National Wildlife Federation, part of a federal panel that wrote last year’s panther recovery plan.
The panther faces myriad threats, but none are as troubling as the steady loss of open space to sprawl in Southwest Florida, where most of the remaining 80 to 100 panthers live, many experts say. Male panthers require a range of about 200 square miles and females need about 75 square miles.
As subdivisions multiply, so do the panther’s problems.
New homes and roads act like barriers between panther sub-populations, restricting genetic flow. The expansion of pavement leaves panthers at greater risk of being run over. And, wedged into tighter confines, male cats kill one another in greater numbers during turf battles.
“You can’t expect a population to remain stable if you decrease the amount of habitat and the quality of the habitat it has available,” said Jim Beever, a senior planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council and a former state biologist.
Vast subtropical swaths are protected in Southwest Florida in places such as Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, among others.
Despite dire warnings from within the agency about the consequences of habitat loss, the Fish and Wildlife Service still allows about 1 percent of the panther’s land to be given over to sprawl every year. Many of those conversions have taken place in Lee and Collier counties, the third- and seventh-fastest population growth areas in the country since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A housing slump in the past year or so has given the panther a reprieve of sorts, except in Hendry County. The rural county now wants to amend its growth plan to allow more than 13,000 new homes and nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space to be planted on pastures west of LaBelle.
In Lee, the first half of 2007 saw 7,286 housing permits pulled, down more than 40 percent from the first half of 2005. The same span in Collier saw permitted housing units plummet nearly 50 percent.
The Collier figures would have been lower if it weren’t for the new town and Catholic university of Ave Maria, which accounted for one out of 10 residential permits from January through June this year. The town lies just north of Oil Well Road on land once ruled by panthers.
“Maybe this slowdown or recession or whatever you want to call it is a good thing,” said Franklin Adams, a Golden Gate Estates resident who’s on Florida Wildlife Federation’s board of directors. “We’re getting kind of down to the wire in the whole state.
“What can we save?”
‘The economics won’t work’
A half-century ago, railroad cars spirited pine and cypress trees down temporary tracks that criss-crossed the wilderness of eastern Collier County, leaving the land barren. Afterward, landowners kept the moonscape profitable by planting tomatoes, peppers and anything else that would tolerate the sandy soil.
They recently discovered that houses grow pretty well, too, but not until they started making a few concessions to the environment.
Barron Collier Cos., a company that traces its history to the county’s founder, was the first agribusiness to experiment with concrete. Since the dawn of 2007, scores of homes and storefronts have sprouted like dandelions on 5,000 acres of fallow farm fields just south of Immokalee.
Next in line is Collier Enterprises, which was part of Barron Collier until the entities split in the 1980s. The company wants to weave a web of villages stretching for 18 miles between Alligator Alley and Immokalee Road, east of Golden Gate Estates.
Construction won’t begin at Big Cypress, as the town will be known, until 2010 at the earliest and will take more than 20 years to complete. Before that happens, it will need the same local and federal blessing that Ave Maria got.
The towns represent a new generation of development in Southwest Florida, their founders say.
Both are part of the county’s Rural Land Stewardship Area, which consists of nearly 200,000 acres of farm fields, pasture and swamps around Immokalee. The stewardship area is the product of a landowner-funded study that called for developers to preserve and restore environmentally sensitive land to earn credits for development.
Barely five years after the ink dried on the county’s new growth plan, Ave Maria and Big Cypress are poised to eventually carve up 13,000 acres of land surrounded by core panther habitat. In return, the adjacent towns will reserve a total of 31,000 acres just beyond their boundaries for wildlife, water recharge and to guard against sprawl. In mid-September, Collier Enterprises filed documents for a scaled-back version of Big Cypress, saying it made more sense to move forward with a piece of what eventually could be more development than trying to get permits for the entire Big Cypress Stewardship District all at once.
The panther’s future, it seems, lies with outsourcing preservation to developers.
With the skyrocketing cost of real estate, taxpayer-funded buyouts of panther habitat are a thing of the past, said Darrell Land, the state’s panther team leader.
“Some people would say you could have restored that footprint of Ave Maria,” Land said. “I would say, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ But it would have taken tremendous resources to do that. So, we’re hoping the effect of Ave Maria will be neutral.”
“The kind of restoration we’re talking about is time-consuming and expensive,” said Christian Spilker, a vice president and environmental scientist with Collier Enterprises. “We’ve got to have development or we can’t have preservation.”
Otherwise, he added: “The economics won’t work.”
But will a system with the developer in the driver’s seat work for the panther?
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s go-ahead in February for Ave Maria attracted a legal challenge from a group called Defenders of Wildlife. The environmental group has signaled it will sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife unless the agencies do a more thorough accounting of how the “enormous project” will affect panthers.
For instance, Defenders of Wildlife asserts that the 25-mile radius used to identify the “action area” for such projects is inadequate. The distance is based on the typical distance a young male panther will travel to establish its own territory, but the agency’s own research suggests such panthers may roam more than 40 miles.
Furthermore, the group contends that the Ave Maria case implies that “the destruction of suitable habitat can be offset simply by preserving the status quo in other areas,” according to legal documents. The challenge seeks to have federal officials maintain the integrity of existing habitat.
Souza stands behind his agency’s decision on Ave Maria, saying “significant lands have been set aside in perpetuity.” The two sides are talking settlement.
‘No one likes me’
On the front lines of the fight over Southwest Florida’s open space stands a man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, a graying beard, a halo of hair and eyeglasses chosen for their utility over their appearance.
Allen Webb, a product of Pahokee High School on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, is the planning supervisor for Fish and Wildlife’s Vero Beach office. He speaks with pride of his strong ties to the Sunshine State and his hometown, a dot on the map called Sand Cut, which boasts about a half-dozen denizens hemmed in by sugar cane fields and the lake’s dike.
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Webb recently told a gathering of local planners and developer representatives in LaBelle over a catered lunch of baked beans, pulled pork, fried chicken and other Southern cuisine. “If you guys don’t like the conversation and you want to tar and feather me, make the tar not so hot.”
Webb said he has heard plenty of consultants complain over the years about the time it takes to win approval for a project pegged for panther territory. One of his goals is to speed up the process, he said, adding that his past two annual employee evaluations have urged him to process applications in a timely manner.
Webb said he isn’t looking to “streamline” panther reviews “because that’s controversial.” Instead, he suggested that wildlife services reviewers “should be stepping up to the plate to do our side. We’re going to tell you up front if a project is going to present a significant issue to us.”
And developers’ consultants need to do their part, too, Webb said. They should be able to provide detailed information about the property, such as what kind of panther prey exists, its proximity to public lands and whether panthers have crossed it, among other things.
Such information gets pasted into biological opinions, which give the agency’s final word on whether a project will undermine an endangered animal’s chances for survival. A St. Petersburg Times story published in May 2006 was the first to link developers to the reviews of their own projects, leading some environmentalists to question the practice.
“It’s hard to make the argument you’re using the best available science when you’re having an interested party prepare the document,” said Hartt of the National Wildlife Federation.
Kevin Dugan, who has helped write several biological opinions for Collier County road projects, likened his work to “filling in the blanks.” Souza said his staff asks applicants to look at the latest available biological opinion, delete project-specific information and insert their own project parameters.
“This does not mean developers are writing their own biological opinions,” Souza said, adding that federal reviewers check the accuracy of the information against available science and mapping technology before it’s published.
Webb, for his part, sees his job as a balancing act.
“The program I run, no one likes us,” he told the LaBelle gathering. “If I go to a meeting, no one likes me because they think I’m too soft, and the others think I’m too hard. But the way I think of it is, if no one likes me I’m doing my job. My bosses are the people and the animals.”
Redrawing the lines
For years, new projects popped up across Southwest Florida with little resistance. Once a frontier, southeastern Lee County became a focal point as federal consent paved the way for Florida Gulf Coast University, Southwest Florida International Airport, Miromar Lakes and the Daniels Parkway extension.
The system that triggered this growth explosion came under fire in 2003, when a scientific review team found that the government had been using faulty science to sign off on developments that ate into the wilderness.
The review came after one of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own biologists raised objections. Andy Eller, formerly of Naples, said that the agency’s knowledge about panther movements ignored where they went at night, when they are most active. As a result, reviewers were overemphasizing the preservation of forests, where panthers tend to bed during the daytime, at the expense of marshes, farm fields and other habitat types.
Eller, who was fired after going public with his concerns, later was reinstated at the agency after settling out of court. He later went to work at a wildlife refuge in Kentucky.
At the behest of their bosses, federal biologists widened their definition of what constituted panther habitat. That led to Collier County commissioners facing a $275,000 mitigation bill for the widening of Santa Barbara Boulevard north of Davis Boulevard, a roadway lined with homes and golf course fairways.
The money required by the Fish and Wildlife Service amounted to less than 1 percent of the road-widening’s cost but nonetheless set tongues wagging.
“This is an urban area,” grumbled Commissioner Frank Halas during a June 2006 commission meeting. “I don’t understand how the federal government is getting us involved in panther mitigation for a road that already exists, and all we’re going to do is add lanes to it.”
The fee came down to one simple fact: Santa Barbara Boulevard was inside the boundaries of the wildlife service’s “panther consultation area.” Any project falling in the area’s bubble had to pay.
At the time, the line followed Interstate 75 through northern Collier and reached as far west as Airport-Pulling Road in the southern half of the county. Collier leaders wanted it moved several miles to the east to the county’s urban boundary, which sits one mile east of Collier Boulevard.
Within a few months, wildlife service biologists issued a revamped consultation map, one that carved out Golden Gate and East Naples from future scrutiny. The agency also aimed its cutting knife at Lehigh Acres, the Everglades Agricultural Area in northeast Hendry County and a booming area just east of I-75 in Lee County.
The overhauled map better reflected where panthers are most likely to be found, Souza said.
“I don’t see it as a reduction,” he said. “It’s a clarification of the science that tells us the best of what’s available.”
Souza’s marching orders contained no mention of reviewing areas just outside the consultation area until after a National Wildlife Federation letter reminded the agency it had to consider “cumulative impacts,” such as traffic a project produces. In reaction, the wildlife service quietly changed the consultation area’s name to the “focus area” and decreed that projects just outside its borders weren’t necessarily safe from panther mitigation.
Souza disputes Dugan’s claim that pressure from Collier County swayed the federal agency.
“Politics did not play a role in our decision to revise the boundaries,” Souza said. “We made the changes because recent scientific publications have defined panther habitat with greater precision.”
By all accounts, panthers can’t afford to lose any more habitat in Southwest Florida. The situation is so critical that the second-highest priority of last year’s federal recovery plan was to reintroduce panthers to parts of their historic range in Central Florida — and even outside the state.
It likely doesn’t help the panther’s cause when federal reviewers sign off on a developer’s plan to set aside panther habitat on land that already has been set aside. But that’s what happened two years ago.
Worthington Holdings Southwest LLC of Fort Myers had big plans for its 2,500 acres east of I-75 and north of Daniels Parkway in Lee County. The plans included 6,500 new households, a village center and 36 holes of golf in a subdivision the company called Arborwood.
The company proposed planting pine trees and doing other restoration activities on a 1,700-acre cow pasture east and north of Immokalee to fulfill its panther obligations. That land, however, was part of the 17,000 acres that Barron Collier Cos. promised to preserve in return for Ave Maria.
“They just said, ‘OK, we accept that,’ ” said Nancy Payton with the Florida Wildlife Federation, who discovered the peculiarity.
Payton raised her concerns with Souza of the Fish and Wildlife Service in a December 2005 e-mail. He replied that it was his “impression” that the land hadn’t been permanently protected, admitting he didn’t “fully appreciate the nuances of this issue.”
Developers shouldn’t get the same credit for restoring land that’s already protected versus those starting from scratch, Souza told the Daily News nearly two years later. The agency has decided it won’t let developers buy mitigation land in protected areas until it has studied the issue further, he added.
Panther safety tips
No human has ever been attacked by a Florida panther, but attacks on dogs, goats and other domestic animals are on the rise. Here are a few ways residents can protect themselves and their property:
• Be particularly alert at night, when panthers are most active.
• Remove vegetation around your house that may provide cover for panthers.
• Do not attract raccoons, deer and other panther prey to your home by feeding them. Unsecured garbage cans, vegetable gardens and pet food can lure them as well.
• Make sure pets and livestock are secured in pens or barns at night. Panthers can scale traditional fences, so a roof is often necessary.
• Supervise children when they’re outdoors between dusk and dawn.
• Never approach a panther, and always hike with a friend.
• If you encounter a panther, make yourself appear larger by opening your jacket, waving your arms and throwing stones. Do not crouch down. Do not run because it may trigger the panther’s pursuit instinct. Instead, give the panther an escape route. If attacked, fight back with whatever is at hand.
To report a threatening panther, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Jeremy Cox is correspondent for the Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.