Florida panther advocates sue Obama administration

Florida Panther 93 awakens from sedation in Big Cypress National Preserve in 2006.

Ralph Arwood/Special to the Daily News

Florida Panther 93 awakens from sedation in Big Cypress National Preserve in 2006.

A dispute over the future of the endangered Florida panther has put plans for a proposed new town east of Naples on hold and resulted in a lawsuit in federal court in Fort Myers.

For starters, five conservation groups sued the Obama administration Thursday over its rejection of the groups’ petitions to add permitting hurdles for projects proposed in panther territory.

The lawsuit asks a judge to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department to start the process of designating 3 million acres in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

“This is not optional,” Sierra Club CEO Carl Pope said from Sarasota, where the groups announced their lawsuit. “This is the law.”

Other plaintiffs are the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council for Civic Associations.

The critical habitat designation would overlap with the site of the new town of Big Cypress, planned for 9,000 homes on 2,800 acres in rural Collier County.

Big Cypress developer Collier Enterprises announced Wednesday that it is delaying its bid for permits to await the outcome of a federal review of a rival plan to protect Florida panther habitat.

The plan, called a Habitat Conservation Plan or HCP, has been proposed by a coalition of large landowners in eastern Collier County teamed up with the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida, Collier County Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.

It could take two years or more to complete the HCP review process plus a minimum of 60 to 90 day public comment period, according to a statement from Collier Enterprises.

The company said a key factor in its decision to put permitting on hold was the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rejection of the critical habitat petitions last week.

In its decision letter, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it preferred the collaborative approach of the HCP project to a critical habitat designation.

An HCP would allow development in some areas in return for putting other areas in preserve, while a critical habitat designation would forbid projects that would “result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat” for panthers.

“It really should be called an HTP, a Habitat Trade Plan,” Center for Biological Diversity advocate Michael Robinson said.

Florida panthers are running out of room to roam in South Florida.

The introduction of Texas cougars to South Florida helped boost the panther population from a low point of 30 animals to between 100 and 120 panthers.

At the same time, though, panthers are losing habitat to roads and development.

In 2009, 17 panthers were killed after getting hit by vehicles, setting a new record for panther roadkills.

The HCP proposal is part of a larger plan to create two new travel routes for panthers, build additional wildlife crossings at hot-spots for panther roadkills and increase federal mitigation requirements.

The critical habitat lawsuit is “no threat” to the HCP, Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.

“The HCP is moving along,” she said.

If the lawsuit is successful, it will touch off a debate over where the critical habitat lines should be drawn that would last beyond her lifetime, Payton said.

“Meanwhile it does nothing for the panther,” she said.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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