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Developers help write wildlife assessments December 09, 2006 1:06 PM

The Fish and Wildlife Service had the people whose projects affect endangered species fill out official agency paperwork. The Sierra Club calls the practice "totally irresponsible."

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published May 12, 2006


[AP, 1997]
Florida panthers, such as this one being released in Big Cypress National Preserve, are among endangered species that the Fish and Wildlife Service protects. The agency says it was busy and needed developers' help with paperwork.
Special report: Vanishing wetlands

The federal agency that is charged with protecting Florida panthers, manatees and other endangered species has let developers write part of opinions on whether their projects would doom the animals to extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed developers and their consultants write "biological opinions,'' or "BO'' for short, because the agency is swamped with paperwork, according to a March 2005 Fish and Wildlife Service e-mail obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

"To speed things up (due to our heavy workload) we are asking the consultant for each project that adversely affects panthers to prepare a BO based on a template BO that we will send you,'' federal biologist John Wrublik wrote in the e-mail to RaeAnn Boylan, a consultant for a Lee County project to widen a road through panther habitat.

Wrublik said in his e-mail that adapting the "template'' to fit various projects destroying panther habitat should be "pretty straightforward,'' requiring only some "deleting and inserting'' information "where appropriate.''

Paul Souza, Wrublik's boss in the Vero Beach office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said no one should think the agency is allowing Florida developers to write the entire biological opinion.

"We prepare all the species analysis,'' Souza said Thursday. "What we do ask them to provide us are the details of the project - what is the habitat impact? What is the impact on panthers, based on their understanding?''

In some cases the same approach has been used in dealing with projects that affected other species, such as manatees, Souza said. He could not say how many biological opinions were co-written by developers, or when the practice began. Last year the Vero Beach office produced 15 biological opinions on Florida development projects, he said, and so far this year it has produced 10.

Environmental advocates on Thursday condemned the agency's approach to species protection. Letting developers do a cut-and-paste job on the agency's biological opinions "is totally irresponsible,'' said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club.

Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation said the result is "cookie-cutter permitting'' that makes life easier for developers and federal officials "rather than focusing on what's best for the panther.''

This year the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report that said panthers are running out of places to live in Florida. "There is insufficient habitat in South Florida to sustain a viable panther population,'' the federal report said.

State officials estimate that about 80 panthers remain in the wild, almost all in the state's swampy southwestern corner below the Caloosahatchee River. That area, however, has seen some of the state's fastest development in the past decade.

In the early 1990s, state and federal officials designated 600,000 acres of privately owned land in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties as prime habitat for the panther. But state and federal officials have allowed people to build throughout that habitat, granting permits for highways, subdivisions, shopping centers, mines and even a new university.

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 December 09, 2006 1:07 PM

Because much of the land in the western Everglades is swamp, developers frequently need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to destroy wetlands. If the development might affect an endangered species, the corps must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the potential impact.

Federal rules say that if there will be an impact, then the agency must prepare a biological opinion about whether the species' future survival will be jeopardized. The last time the Fish and Wildlife Service issued such a jeopardy opinion in Florida was three years ago, Souza said, and it has never issued a jeopardy opinion on a project affecting panthers.

Last year, the agency acknowledged it had been using flawed science to sign off on permits and reinstated the biologist who complained about the practice.

In the March 2005 e-mail, Wrublik said that the template for developers to follow in writing the agency's opinions was developed for Mirasol, a controversial subdivision to be built on 1,766 acres near Bonita Springs. The developer, Virginia coal-mining company owner J.D. Nicewonder, proposed two 18-hole golf courses and nearly 800 homes, wiping out 587 acres of swamp.

A key part of the development was a 3-mile-long, 200-foot-wide ditch to funnel stormwater around Mirasol's houses and three other Collier County developments into a canal. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials warned that the ditch was likely to drain an additional 2,000 acres nearby, including the Aububon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, home to endangered wood storks.

Six months ago, the corps denied Mirasol's permit.

In his e-mail to Boylan about the Lee County widening project, Wrublik wrote that having the consultant use the template to write the opinion would speed up approval of the project's permit .

"We generally have 135 days to prepare the BO,'' Wrublik wrote. ""However, since you will be helping with the preparation, we should be able to get it out much sooner.''

Boylan could not be reached for comment Thursday.

It was unclear if the project, which would widen a two-lane rural road into a divided multi-lane highway and wipe out about 20 acres of land used by panthers, was approved.

Being run over is one of the most common ways panthers are killed. Within a 25-mile radius around the proposed road-widening project, 18 panthers had been hit by cars since 1980, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It's a shame,'' Steven Williams, founder of the Florida Panther Society, said of the e-mail. "We pay the government ... to protect us and protect the environment, and they have turned it over to people who wish to use it and abuse it.''

In the e-mail, Wrublik said he initially believed the road project would not even require a biological opinion but "our policy has been changed by upper management.'' The reason: "Projects affecting the panther have been the subject of a lot of litigation lately.''

Two years ago a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service had improperly issued a permit for a new lime rock mine amid 6,000 acres of panther habitat near Fort Myers. The judge said the two agencies failed to consider the cumulative impact of approving so many other developments.

Earlier this year, a different federal judge overturned permits that allowed the destruction of 5,000 acres of wetlands on the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade County, in part because the Fish and Wildlife Service let the miners dictate whether there would be any impact on endangered wood storks.

Because the agency failed to prepare its own biological opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler ruled, its actions "were arbitrary and capricious.'

[Last modified May 12, 2006, 12:05:47]

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 December 09, 2006 1:40 PM

What can you say to something like this? For one, it's one of the reasons we're in the situation we're in!  [ send green star]
 December 09, 2006 1:46 PM

Yeah...  this just burns me up, and they are doing it to wetlands everywhere.  You know Judy's battle for the wetlands in Maine.  At least in Florida, in seems the Army Corp of Engineeers was on the right side of all this, at least it appears that way in the press.  Is that accurate?  Not so in Maine...

This quote especially:

In the early 1990s, state and federal officials designated 600,000 acres of privately owned land in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties as prime habitat for the panther. But state and federal officials have allowed people to build throughout that habitat, granting permits for highways, subdivisions, shopping centers, mines and even a new university.

If its designated as "prime panther habitat" -- then WHY on earth did they grant permits for all of the above?

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 December 10, 2006 3:47 AM

Seriousy, seriously sad..who is in seems like all they do is pass the buck..the responsibilty...someone needs to step it up!  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
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 December 10, 2006 3:50 AM

guys I keep thinking..what more can we do??

Is it to late to start yet another petiton against building more gold courses, condo's ect. ?

I just feel as though I wish we could do more to get the politicians attention!

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