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Florida panther
Palm Beach Post, September 17, 2009

Vast protection area urged for Florida panthers
By Paul Quinlan

Environmentalists are pressing for the federal government to declare 3 million acres of South Florida - an area twice the size of Delaware - critical habitat for the nearly extinct Florida panther.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does so, the added protection would raise the bar for developers seeking permits to build in the area, which covers most of Southwest Florida north to the Caloosahatchee River and western portions of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

"There's probably no more-endangered animals in the U.S. than the Florida Panther," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, who authored the petition filed Thursday. "The habitat that they're occupying now is under threat of development - not just malls and housing developments but the roads that access them."

The move represents a more aggressive push from environmentalists to rescue the endangered panther, big cats that once roamed the southeastern U.S. by the thousands but now number between 100 and 120 and live primarily in South Florida.

Robinson, whose group is joined in the petition Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he expects a response from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within 90 days. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida filed a similar petition earlier this year but has yet to receive a response, said Robinson. Robinson threatened suit if Fish and Wildlife does not act.

"We understand that the agency has in the past responded to political pressure," said Robinson. "We will be prepared to litigate."

Whether such petitions garner a response from Fish and Wildlife can depend on any number of factors, including the agency's budget.

"Any petition gets the same treatment - it will get reviewed," said agency spokesman Chuck Underwood. "They'll make a decision at that point as to where they'll go with it."

Scientists say the steady march of homes, roads and strip malls inland from coastal areas in South Florida squeezed panther numbers to fewer than 10 in the 1970s.

The panther's slight comeback is attributed in part to the temporary introduction of 8 female pumas from Texas in 1995 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. All were returned after 5 reproduced, injecting some genetic diversity into a population suffering from kinked tails, undeveloped sex organs and other signs of inbreeding. Fresh genes, in turn, helped the cats reproduce with more success.

Panther deaths are increasing along Florida roads and highways. The 13th panther killed this year - the ninth by a vehicle - was found dead Sept. 8 on Interstate 75 in Collier County.

Copyright 2009 The Palm Beach Post.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton