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Forget panthers; developers are Florida’s most protected species

In case you haven’t been paying attention, your state now considers the Florida panther a nuisance animal.

This may be news to the more than 46,000 Florida drivers with a “Protect the Panther” state-issued specialty license plate — about 256 Florida panther license plates for each living and breathing Florida panther.

Because it turns out that the most protected species in the state these days is the Florida developer, who has plans to build a whole lot of houses in the panther’s prime habitat in Southwest Florida, south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee.

So Florida officials are talking about drastic measures, including euthanizing the official state animal or shipping Florida panthers to live in some other state, because the panthers’ numbers have “exceeded carrying capacity” in the state.

How many Florida panthers are too many Florida panthers?

We’re talking about an estimated 180 panthers. That’s the high estimate. And Florida drivers (maybe even a few with panther license plates) are accidentally killing a couple dozen panthers every year on state roads.

But the biggest threat to panthers these days has become the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the same crew that has brought back hunting of the recently protected Florida black bear.

The commission concluded that there are too many panthers in Southwest Florida, as part of a position statement published in June.

“At this level, panther populations are straining and currently exceed the tolerance of landowners, residents and recreationists in the region,” the paper read.

It helps to put these numbers in context. For the past 47 years, the state has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep Florida panthers from becoming extinct. Wildlife experts calculated that it would take three panther populations of about 240 cats each to take the panthers off protected status.

And today we’re at an estimated 180 cats in a single population, meaning that we’re still missing two additional populations of 240 cats in the state, and the one we have is still 60 panthers shy of a sustainable number.

Yet, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission, we suddenly have too many panthers. FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley told The Wall Street Journal that “we might have to euthanize an animal from time to time.”

Instead of protecting and growing the panther population, the state wildlife commission has refocused its energy to “place greater emphasis on addressing human-panther conflicts to continually reassure the public that panthers are being managed in a manner that places public safety first and foremost,” according to its June position paper.

So what’s the problem?

It’s not that panthers are moving into new habitats. It’s that people are planning to move into the panther habitat.

Developers in Collier County are seeking federal approval to build on 45,000 acres of prime panther habitat, turning large tracts of rural, undeveloped land into a sprawling multi-city development of homes, businesses and sand and rock mining operations.

The plan is to turn undeveloped land in what is known as the Rural Land Stewardship Area into 138,571 housing units for an estimated 329,800 people.

“It means less habitat for the panthers, which will be fighting each other to the death over territorial disputes or getting killed on the roads,” said Jennifer Hecker, the director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “Loss of habitat leads to extinction.”

Frank Jackalone, the Florida staff director of the Sierra Club, blames the state’s new panther squeeze on Gov. Rick Scott’s business-first leadership.

“The commission is heavily weighted toward developers and it’s carrying out Rick Scott’s plan to develop the center of the state,” Jackalone said.

The most vocal supporter of the bear hunt was Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer who chaired the FWC. He resigned this week. Gov. Scott quickly filled the vacancy on the wildlife commission with Robert Spottswood, a corporate lawyer and Key West real estate developer.

The new chairman of the FWC is Brian Yablonski, the external affairs director for the Gulf Power Co. And one of the landowners looking to develop in Collier’s panther habitat is Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy, a Scott appointee to the FWC board.

Following an outcry by environmentalists over the commission’s position paper on panthers, the FWC issued a revised position paper this month that tones down its language.

Instead of saying that the panthers have exceeded their capacity in the state, the new language says that panthers have already “fully occupied all available panther habitat” in Southwest Florida.

It suggests protecting the panther by establishing “breeding populations outside of South Florida and possibly into other southeastern states.”

So for you drivers with “Protect the Panther” license plates, you might want to reconsider.

Those plates have apparently expired.

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.

© 2015 Cox Newspapers

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