Should America put a price tag on the cost of saving the Florida panther?
There are only 120 – 230 of these big cats left in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 estimate, and the population faces increasing pressures from habitat destruction.
The issue came to the forefront in the U.S. last month as the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior announced changes to the Endangered Species Act. These changes include adding economic impact reports when a species is considered for protection under the act.
Panthers aren’t the only imperiled species living in Florida that may be affected by these changes.
Manatees, sea turtles, wood storks and Cape Sable seaside sparrows are among the 134 threatened or endangered plants and animals that call Florida home, according to the National Park Service.
“We are devastated that not only do we have these rules that are going to devastate species on the act, but there are species that have been lacking protection for a long time,” said Diane Umpierre with the Sierra Club. “We’re concerned more species will be denied protection and those that do have protections are going to end up delisted or downgraded, which could lead to extinction.”
More: FWS hosts meeting on recommendation to remove Key deer from endangered list
Local conservation groups worry that endangered species will become imperiled and face greater risks of extinction.
The groups are concerned about three main changes:
- The department can report economic factors prior to a species being listed on the act.
- Threatened species will no longer receive the same protections as those listed as endangered, but this will only apply to new listings and not those already in place.
- The designation of critical habitat will focus on areas already occupied by a listed species.
The Endangered Species Act, enacted in 1973 under President Nixon, is credited with saving American alligators, bald eagles, grizzly bears and gray wolves.
The United States Department of the Interior under the Trump administration set forth changes to Endangered Species Act on Aug. 12.
The changes catalyzed an outcry and induced some states to pursue legal action against the changes.
The changes specifically affect two sections of the act: Section 4 deals with how determinations are made to list species and Section 7 lays out how different agencies cooperate under the act.
Conservation groups like the Sierra Club, Save the Manatee Club, Florida Conservation Voters and the Center for Biological Diversity are worried the changes will erode protections while others believe the changes codify what has already been in practice.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a news release that the new rules were an improvement to the act by increasing transparency and bringing it into the 21st century.
“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species. The act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” Bernhardt said in the release. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
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Previously: FWS hosts meeting on recommendation to remove Key deer from endangered list
Florida’s wildlife gives the state a unique identity and draws tourists from all over the world. One of those species, the Key deer, is listed as endangered but has been recommended for delisting by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Umpierre, an organizer for Sierra Club’s Everglades Restoration campaign, likens the Key deer, and even Florida’s panther, to the polar bear — a poster child for species at risk of extinction. She said the club will use every legal means possible to mobilize people against the changes to the act.
Delisting occurs when a species is removed from the act and downgrading occurs when an endangered species is listed as threatened.
The USFWS defines endangered as a species in danger of extinction while a threatened species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
A key rule change being debated among either side of the issue is new language in the act that allows economic factors to be reported when a new species is considered for listing.
Jonathan Wood, a senior attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation and research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center said there are pervasive myths surrounding this new rule.
“Some initial reports suggested the agency would look at economic impacts, but the rule prohibits that,” Wood said. “The rule says that going forward, the agency can acknowledge them but can’t use them in a decision.”
Wood said the idea behind including economic reports was to make a listing process transparent to the public.
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Others believe including these reports would degrade the act.
“It’s really eroding the character and purpose of the act,” said Anne Harvey, a staff attorney with the Save the Manatee Club. “I don’t think these changes comply with the statue. There’s a really strong argument that these regulations are not authorized under the act.”
Sierra Club’s Umpierre said the addition of economic consideration is devastating.
“We think it’s crazy to put the future survival of the species on something as politically charged as economic factors,” she said. “It’s basically saying human profits are more important than any other species.”
Removing the blanket
Florida’s Director of the Center for Biological Diversity Jacki Lopez said the key issue with the changes is that future species listed as threatened will lose protections.
“One of the easiest things to understand with regulation change is that prior to rule change, species listed as endangered or threatened both enjoyed the same protections.” Lopez said.
One of the new rules, proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, removes a blanket rule that offered the same protections to species.
“One reason we are concerned is that Florida has some of the highest biodiversity in U.S.,” Lopez said. “The state has the highest backlog of species waiting for protected status.”
The Department of the Interior’s news release said the removal of the blanket rule will bring the act more in line with the rules of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“The change impacts only future threatened species’ listings or reclassifications … ,” the release said. “(The change) does not apply to species already listed as threatened.”
Under this new rule, the USFWS will determine specific rules for each species listed as threatened.
Wood said this was Congress’ initial plan all along; threatened species’ considerations should be “regulated with a scalpel.”
More: Florida panthers, bobcats showing signs of poisoning, neurological damage
“Going forward, regulations on species will be tailored,” he said. “As species move toward recovery, if you reward landowners for that effort, we’re more likely to get active movement. In part, that’s how the law works. As species recover, you reward and encourage.”
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a news release the changes to the act underwent a “robust, transparent process.”
“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” he said.
Habitat is an important component when considering the survival of an endangered or threatened species. The new rules for the act make habitat where species are present a priority over unoccupied areas.
“This reduces the potential for additional regulatory burden that results from a designation when species are not present in the area,” the release says.
In the case of Florida’s manatees, vital habitat may not be occupied year-round, yet it remains crucial to the species. Manatees regularly come back to the same warm water refuges in winter months.
“Manatees tend to be loyal to their own system, especially during cold weather,” Harvey said. “If one site is destroyed, they don't know necessarily how to go find another one.”
One concern is that if some of these areas are allowed to be degraded entirely, manatees loyal to that site won’t know where to go.
“It’s probably the worst issue facing manatees — up there with watercraft,” Harvey said.
Wood said incentivizing landowners would be a good solution to keep a threatened or endangered species’ habitat from being degraded or lost.
Critical habitat can be protected “through market-based incentives that reward people for restoring the most habitat,” Wood said. “Cost alienates people and causes conflict, but does not do much to spur conservation.”
More: Green sea turtles numbers up in Southwest Florida, across the state
Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, said keeping regulations on critical habitat is not only beneficial to threatened or endangered species, but to humans as well.
“Saving one species is actually saving all of the ecosystem, all of the lands and places that species need to survive,” she said. “We as humans reap benefits because we get our aquifers recharged and special recreational areas protected.”
The new rules will make it easier for landowners to build on critical habitat that is not currently occupied by a species in peril.
“While this administration recognizes the value of critical habitat as a conservation tool,” the Department of the Interior’s release said, “in some cases, designation of crucial habitat is not prudent.”
Moncrief said turning a blind eye to conserving habitat is ludicrous in Florida considering the dangers of climate change.
“This is like signing the death warrant for the species,” Moncrief said. “The wildlife can't get a break. There’s unchecked development, the water quality crisis and an administration rolling back protections. How are animals going to survive?”
There are a number of states bringing a legal challenge against the changes to the Endangered Species Act, Moncrief said. Her organization has started a petition it plans to send to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody.
“It would be wonderful if DeSantis can use his relationship with (President) Trump to the benefit of protecting species,” Moncrief said. “The goal of the petition is to demonstrate to the governor that people don’t like the changes. We want our state lawmakers to stand up.”
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter at Naples Daily News. Follow him on Twitter: @karlstartswithk
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