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Finding Harmony in Naples: A Weekly Exploration

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Finding Harmony in Naples: A Weekly Exploration

The Florida panther appears to be at a tipping point between existence and extinction, caught between the push and pull of those captivated with conservation and others desperate to embark on their proposed developments within the endangered species’ ever-shrinking habitat. While major decisions loom on the way to each protect the panther and manage the increasing pressure of development, one in every of the main tools needed to make the best-informed decisions is lacking. The Endangered Species Act requires that a standing review of the panther be accomplished every five years. The last one was released in 2009; the most recent one is 14 years late.
The status shows current population and distribution, habitat conditions, threats to the species, conservation measures, and other data. It determines whether the panther will maintain its endangered species status. The South Florida Wildlands Association formally petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding the review be accomplished by a certain date or provide the explanation why. The nonprofit association advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitat within the Greater Everglades ecosystem.
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the group, says the panther faces a quadruple threat: development and lack of habitat; substantial lack of prey because of varied aspects, including the voracious appetites of burgeoning Burmese pythons; a neurological disease spreading through the panther population called feline leukomyelopathy; and traffic deaths. For Florida’s state animal, the long run doesn’t look brilliant, Schwartz said. He believes “that development in panther habitat has already reached the tipping point so far as the continued existence of the species in Southwest Florida.” With all of the projects under development, “it’s a reasonably secure bet to say, yes, we will lose the panther if we do not make some dramatic, drastic changes to how we’re managing not the animal, however the landscape,” he said. A Florida panther on a trailcam at sunset at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, in the center of Florida’s Big Cypress Basin. NWR / COURTESY PHOTO
FWS officials responded to the association’s petition by saying they’ve been working on the five-year review, which have to be based on a comprehensive Species Status Assessment. The assessment was originally accomplished in 2021 but withdrawn because of various requests for revision, including a “formal scientific integrity grievance.” After revisions and two more “integrity” reviews, the brand new document is anticipated to be ready by the tip of the yr, and the brand new five-year status will probably be issued in spring 2024. The FWS also cited an amazing workload and a scarcity of resources for the delay.
It is vital that the status review is finished right and as soon as possible, said Amber Crooks, environmental policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Not only will it determine the panther’s legal status, “but it would also help inform other big, hefty decisions that the agencies will make, corresponding to development proposals,” she said. Those decisions could come in a short time, and projects could have their permits and begin to show dirt before the document is finalized, she said.
One development called the Eastern Collier Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan was proposed by 12 developers and landowners for the northeastern corner of Collier County, where plans include at the very least three villages, a town, mining, and other development. Known as the “HCP,” it might have covered 45,000 acres and preserved an extra 100,000-plus acres for the panther and other species. Several environmental groups, including Audubon of Western Everglades, Audubon Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Florida Wildlife Federation, helped the landowners apply for the plan, believing that development in the realm was inevitable resulting from Florida’s exploding population and it was more sustainable to pay attention it in a single place, surrounded by preserved acreage and avoiding primary and secondary panther habitat as much as possible. A map by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida shows six proposed projects for development in rural Lee and Collier counties, all near panther habitats. CONSERVANCY OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA / COURTESY MAP
Other environmental groups just like the wildlands association, Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity objected strongly, saying the HCP was the scale of Washington, D.C., and would require constructing 200 more miles of roads, convert about 20,000 acres of primary zone panther habitat to development and mining, and produce in about 300,000 people. Moreover, it might have added about 183,000 additional cars on recent and existing roads, generating a rise of 800,000 more every day automotive trips on already-deadly roadways, in addition to increasing the traffic congestion on Lee County’s Corkscrew Road by almost 24 times the present rate, the Conservancy says. One example is the Bellmar development project, only a couple of mile away from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Crooks said. “The refuge is 27,000-plus acre habitat established for the aim of protecting the panther and might be essentially the most densely utilized area by the panthers,” she said. “To have an intense development like Bellmar about one mile away, we’re really concerned that that would have indirect effects on the panther refuge and in addition to a wildlife corridor that skirts all the way through Bellmar,” in addition to two other proposed developments, River Grass and Rural Lands West, she said. The corridor, called the Camp Keais Strand, is a wetland flow way that connects the panther refuge as much as the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, she said. “So, it’s a extremely necessary area.” There would even be continued agriculture, oil exploration, and drilling within the “preserve” areas that were meant to mitigate impacts, the Conservancy says. “We have been against the HCP since it placed about half of that development smack dab in the midst of this most important area and habitat for the Florida panther,” Crooks said. “We identified plenty of fatal flaws concerning the proposal, and we even tried to supply an alternate vision for development within the eastern Collier County area. One that will limit and avoid the event of primary panther habitat,” she said. The Conservancy believes that the HCP development would potentially result in or end in panther extinction. “So it was actually a win we saw when the HCP had been withdrawn,” Crooks said. “And we will proceed to fight the projects and ask for his or her denial of the remaining projects as they’re coming through.” Then again, the environmental groups that helped the developers and landowners prepare the HCP consider it was one of the best solution to preserve panther habitat and make sure the panther’s existence while understanding that 1,000 people per day are moving into Florida, with demographers predicting a ten million to fifteen million population increase by 2070. Coastal areas are built out, and folks will move inland. Climate change will even play an element. If one or two more storms like Ian hit the Southwest Florida coast, people will flock inland. Future within the balance There are strong feelings on either side, with the panther’s future hanging within the balance.
“I worked on that habitat conservation plan,” said Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon Florida/ Audubon Western Everglades. “And albeit, it was a vital component of working with private landowners to be certain there have been connected panther corridors and wetland flow ways going through eastern Collier County. So, this was covering 150,000 acres of eastern Collier County. It was all private lands and it was going to permanently protect 134,000 acres of this land for panthers and for wetlands. And in exchange, it was allowing for development in areas that were already heavily impacted right next to Golden Gate Estates,” including tomato fields and pepper fields and sod farms, he said. “And so that is the type of land use planning that Audubon and plenty of others consider are essential if we will accommodate all these people coming to Florida because we won’t stop it unless we construct a wall on the Georgia line,” Cornell said. “Our job is to work out a land use plan that puts those people in sustainable communities, not conflicting with Florida panther habitat and wetlands and water resources. That is a tall order. But that HCP was exactly that type of plan that laid out a 50-year land use plan that will direct those developments away from panther habitat and wetlands. The study area for Florida panther habitats prolonged from below Naples to as far north as Central Florida. The land in green already is protected. CONSERVANCY OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA / COURTESY MAP
“It was a compromise,” Cornell said. “It was saying, we all know the individuals are coming. Let’s accommodate them in places which are going to do the smallest amount of injury. That was the plan. It still is the plan.” The HCP application was made in 2010 to the FWS. As of 2022, no decision had been made. The landowners withdrew the applying in July 2022. So why is it still a difficulty? The HCP could also be gone, however the projects should not. They now plan to…

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