With more than 20 million residents, Florida is booming in both job growth and population growth. The state’s booming health is spelling bad news for wildlife habitat. The situation for Florida panthers has gotten so bad that U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., is calling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate “critical habitat” for them now. The FWS defines critical habitat as: “specific geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management and protection. Critical habitat may include an area that is not currently occupied by the species but that will be needed for its recovery.”
“We Should Not Stand By And Do Nothing”
The Florida panther is no ordinary panther. While the big cat is officially recognized as Florida’s state animal, it continues to be one of the most endangered mammals on our planet, and its survival is critical for other wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife explains that Florida panthers are an umbrella species, so “protecting them and the vast, unspoiled, wild territory each one needs to survive—an average of 200 square miles for a single male—protects many other plants and animals that live there.” While the Florida panther has been persecuted since the 1600s with the arrival of European settlers, habitat loss and collisions with motor vehicles are bringing the iconic cat dangerously close to extinction today.
As reported in Sunshine State News, Buchanan’s plea comes on the heels of another panther death involving a motor vehicle, as he explains:
Each year, the Florida panther population continues to shrink in size as more big cats are hit and killed by cars because they lack a safe habitat…Although these panthers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), they face extinction because they have no protected area to live and repopulate…We should not stand by and do nothing as yet another endangered species is wiped off the earth…We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.
Decades to Designate Critical Habitat?
It’s pretty ridiculous that Florida panthers don’t have critical habitat yet. The Florida panther was one of the original “14 mammals included in the launch of the Endangered Species Act” in 1967.
As of January 2015, the FWS designated critical habitat to 704 of the roughly 1500 protected species because there’s no use in protecting a species if you’re not going to protect its habitat, especially in the case of predators. So why has it taken decades to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther?
There’s no clear-cut answer. Even though it’s far from perfect, we know that the ESA works when it’s implemented properly (only 1 percent of protected species ever go extinct). To its credit, there were only 20 Florida panthers in the 1970s.
But we also know that the ESA (at least Section 7 of the Act: “which requires federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service before moving forward with any form of development that they fund, authorize or carry out”) can do better, too. As reported in The Washington Post, a recent study debunked the myth that the ESA stalls economic development — quite the opposite, actually. After reviewing almost 90,000 Section 7 consultations, the researchers discovered that from 2008 to 2015 “no project was stopped or extensively altered during this time” and only two projects were put in “jeopardy.” Considering how many species are still endangered and going extinct, it’s only fair to question the ESA’s judgment and motives.
Even if we don’t know why it’s taken decades to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther, we know it should not take decades to do. We also don’t need to question that the iconic Florida panther needs more protection. In 2015 alone, 30 panthers were killed by vehicles. How many of these deaths could have been prevented? While habitat loss and car collisions are the biggest driving forces behind the panther’s decline, they are also threatened by low genetic diversity, pollution, disease and fear that prevents them from being reintroduced to new areas.
The Sunshine State’s growth shouldn’t mean the death of its iconic species. Sign and share this petition to keep the Florida panther and its habitat protected because we should not just stand by and do nothing as Florida’s state animal disappears.
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar