© George Gentry / USFWS
With all-too-frequent reports of rare panthers killed on roads as their habitat is lost to development, Florida’s big cats are in urgent need of help. Enter the idea to expand the boundaries of the 26,000-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Last summer Defenders and other conservation groups urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the refuge to assist recovery of the endangered Florida panther and the many other imperiled species that share its southwest Florida home. The groups have been working with private landowners to protect crucial habitat for more than a decade.
Many of these landowners, including Sunniland Family Limited Partnership, Collier Enterprises, Alico and McDaniel Ranch, say they are willing to sell or establish conservation easements on crucial habitat in and around the Big Cypress Area of Critical State Concern in Collier and Hendry counties and connecting to the Panther Glades Florida Forever project in southeastern Hendry County. The land could amount to 50,000 additional protected acres for the panther.
Conservationists say this is a tremendous opportunity to expand the refuge—and something out of reach in the past because landowners had been unwilling to sell.
“The private lands north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve are essential components of this rare animal’s core range,” says Laurie Macdonald, director of Defenders’ Florida office. “With just more than 100 known to live in the wild, protection of the Florida panther’s occupied habitat needs to be a top priority.”
Possible sources for money to buy the land include Florida Forever, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as funding available under the Endangered Species Act for landowners implementing a Habitat Conservation Plan, which is underway now for the 180,000 acres of eastern Collier County. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is supposed to have approximately $900 million authorized annually from oil-drilling royalties.