Panthers without borders
You see its image often on license plates in Florida, but chances are next to nothing -- and growing slimmer by the acre -- that you'll ever see the real thing in its natural habitat.
That's because habitat critical to the Florida panther's survival -- large tracts of undisturbed forests, prairies and swamps -- is disappearing fast while human-related mortality remains high. Males require a home range of about 200 square miles; females about a third of that. One housing development after another has sprawled into panther range until the population has been reduced to a single known breeding group of some 100 animals south of the Caloosahatchee River on the peninsula's southern tip. Without expanded range and wildlife corridors to assure dispersal of family groups, intra-breeding poses a serious threat to the species by weakening its gene pool. Caged as it were by diminished range, adult males compete aggressively for domain, their combat frequently mortal. Puma concolor coryi may be the most endangered apex predator in the United States.
Last month, three nonprofit groups with national stature petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fulfill its obligation under the federal Endangered Species Act to aid the panther's recovery by assuring sufficient critical habitat. That, according to the petitioners -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council of Civic Associations -- will require federal prohibitions against encroaching development and other detrimental human activity on about 4,860 square miles in south Florida. The service has until mid-December to determine whether the scientific findings provided by the petitioners compels it to act. That data should be compelling.
The Florida panther has been under state and federal endangered species protection, at least in name, for decades. But the state has shown little will to protect habitat. Even if Florida officials find that will, at present the state's coffers are empty and its regulatory powers weak to curb the insatiable push by commerce-hungry local governments and business interests into panther range. That the panther's survival isn't a high priority in Tallahassee was evident last spring when the Legislature shut off funding for Florida Forever conservation-land acquisition. No, don't look to the state to save the panther.
But, if the feds step in now, there remains hope that Floridians generations from now, if not lucky enough to see a panther in the wild, can still be awed by the tracks it leaves in a night's crossing. The panther is our official state mammal, and our wretched greed to cover this state with concrete and asphalt is killing it off as surely as the gunshot and vehicle collisions that have destroyed 10 panthers, so far, this year.
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