Conservationists Seek Habitat Protection for Highly Endangered Florida Panther

(02/17/2000) - Naples, FL -- Defenders of Wildlife and several other conservation organizations today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Highway Administration for failure to protect the critically imperiled Florida panther.

At a press conference, the groups charged that these federal agencies have allowed negligent permitting and planning activities to infringe upon essential panther habitat. The National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Collier Audubon Society are also participating in the legal action.

"By failing to take the Florida panther into account, the government’s actions are setting a precedent which will allow eradication of the only known panther population in the eastern United States in favor of irresponsible development," said Laurie Macdonald, Florida representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

Construction in southwestern Florida is impacting lands deemed essential to the panther, the groups said. The federal agencies are promoting development on these lands instead of in already settled areas, they added, charging that excessive population growth and development are translating into huge losses of habitat. Along with panther isolation and inbreeding, this has caused the panther population to shrink alarmingly, they added. FWS itself has predicted the Florida panther will "probably become extinct within two to four decades" and that "a catastrophic event could accelerate extinction significantly."

Now one of the world’s rarest mammals, the Florida panther historically roamed parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina as well as Florida. Surviving panthers are now found only in southern Florida. The remaining animals are in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Lee and Glades counties, the Fakahatchee Strand area, Big Cypress National Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and on adjacent private lands. The panther has been listed as endangered since 1973.

"The creation and implementation of a feasible long-term agenda to protect and maintain existing Florida panther populations has reached a critical point because panther habitat is constantly under attack," said Macdonald. "Southwest Florida is being converted from native habitat to urbanization faster than nearly any other region in the United States."

Male panthers can measure as much as seven feet from nose to tail. They can weigh more than 100 pounds. Adults have light tawny fur, a pale grey underbelly and longer, more slender tails and legs than other mountain lions. Panther kittens are spotted for the first year, helping to camouflage them against predators. Females give birth to one to four kittens. Panthers hunt wild hogs, deer and raccoons. Their favorite environment is hardwood hammocks and pine flatwood forests.

"Our immediate goal is the survival of the Florida panther," said Nancy Payton, southwest Florida field representative of Florida Wildlife Federation. "Our long-range goal is the recovery of the Florida panther. To achieve this, we are quickly taking steps to stop the rapid urbanization of southwest Florida’s rural lands. This lawsuit is one of those steps."

Defenders’ panther advocacy is part of a wider strategy of identifying and protecting important areas for conservation at the state level. By promoting economic incentives for responsible landowners, urging expansion of public lands and fighting misguided road projects, Defenders is working for protection of all important habitats in Florida. By protecting the habitat of wide-ranging animals such as the panther and Florida black bear, Defenders hopes to preserve species despite continuing economic development.

"The beauty and freedom we see in the face of the Florida panther should be real; the cats should be alive and well and roaming wild in our state. That face should not simply be a ghostly reflection of the Florida that used to be," said Macdonald.

Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit conservation organization, has more than 380,000 members and supporters, more than 41,000 of whom live in Florida.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270