The petition was filed late last week by the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Council of Civic Associations, which is affiliated with more than 70 civic organizations, government liaisons and community leaders in South Florida.
The service must decide within 90 days whether the petition presents substantial scientific information indicating whether the action may be warranted.
By asking the Service to designate critical habitat for the 100 to 120 Florida panthers that survive today, the three groups are adding a new element to the decision-making process underway at the Fish and Wildlife Service on a petition previously filed on behalf of the panther by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
"Development and tradeoffs invariably leave the Florida panther with less room to roam," said petition author Michael Robinson with the Center, who is also the author of a history of federal policy toward predators.
"We work on hundreds of endangered species from Alaska to Maine," said Robinson. "None are more endangered than the Florida panther. It is teetering on the brink of extinction in a sea of encroaching housing developments and roads."
The Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, is one of the most endangered mammals in the world. (Photo by Larry Richardson courtesy USFWS)
Critical habitat is defined in the Endangered Species Act as the areas necessary for the recovery of an endangered species. Research shows that animals and plants with critical habitat designated for them are recovering twice as fast as those without it.
Once found across much of the southeastern United States, Florida panthers now remain in a single breeding population in Collier, Lee, Hendry, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties.
Florida panthers are a subspecies of the puma, or mountain lion, with subtle differences in skull shape from other pumas. They are uniquely adapted to a hot, humid climate and habitats that differ from those in the West. Adult male Florida panthers weigh an average of 116 pounds, and females weigh 75 pounds. They primarily feed on white-tailed deer and feral hogs.
Male panthers may roam northward across the Caloosahatchee River to other areas in Florida and even as far as west-central Georgia, where one was shot last year. But in recent decades no females have been sighted outside of South Florida, the conservationists say.
The Florida panther has been on the endangered species list since 1967, but its habitat has not been protected.
In December 2008, the Service issued the third revision of the Florida Panther Recovery Plan. This plan and the new petition identify three areas needed for protection - a "primary zone" where panthers currently live and reproduce, a "secondary zone" of adjoining areas that panthers sometimes roam, and a "dispersal zone" consisting of a narrow travel corridor between developments where panthers traverse the Caloosahatchee River to reach more distant areas and potentially establish homes.
Under the Recovery Plan, the panther would be reclassified from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act when two viable populations of at least 240 individuals each have been established and maintained for a minimum of 12 years, or 2 panther generations. Also enough quality habitat in the right places to support these populations must have been secured for the long term before the animals can be downlisted to threatened.
Delisting of the Florida panther will be considered when three viable, self-sustaining populations of at least 240 animals each have been established and maintained for at least 12 years with enough critical habitat to support these populations, the Recovery Plan states.
"The Florida panther is being driven to extinction splayed across the bumpers of cars speeding between gated golf course communities and new megacities sprawling across what have been its ancestral hunting and breeding grounds," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. His organization represents agency scientists who have said there has been "scientific fraud" that aids development but undermines the survival of the panther.
"The only thing that will stiffen the spine of the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job is a legal mandate to protect the habitat essential to the survival of the panther," Ruch said.
"Going to court may be a necessary step because the Fish and Wildlife Service is a thoroughly broken agency and Congressional oversight is almost nonexistent," said Ann Hauck, president of the Council of Civic Associations. "Irresponsible development is killing the very values that make Florida special and, at this rate, panthers will only be seen on our personalized license plates."
Another problem is that much of the land that conservationists say should be set aside for critical habitat is privately owned. In 2005, approximately 22 percent of the land in the Primary Zone, 60 percent in the Secondary Zone, and all the land in the Dispersal Zone were in private ownership.
Designating critical habitat for the panther would not change the terms of private ownership. Critical habitat designation requires federal review of only those development projects carried out by the federal government, permitted by the federal government, and/or funded by the federal government. The federal government is not permitted to approve or carry out such projects if they will destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.
Robinson said, "There is a very small window of opportunity to save the panther. If we don't map out and permanently protect all lands necessary for the great cat's survival and recovery immediately, it will go the way of the dusky seaside sparrow and Caribbean monk seal — two Florida species that have winked out forever in our lifetime."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.