FORT MYERS, Fla. - Conservation groups Wednesday appealed a federal judge’s ruling in the hopes of finally protecting critical habitat for the Florida panther, which has been listed as endangered for more than 40 years.
The appeal, filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, challenges a ruling earlier this month that upheld a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to identify and protect what is left of the panther’s shrinking habitat among sprawling development in South Florida.
In February 2010, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council of Civic Associations, filed a lawsuit challenging the Service's denial of their petitions to designate critical habitat for the panther.
This designation would give the panther the greatest protection available under the federal Endangered Species Act and promote its recovery from the brink of extinction. At present, about 120 Florida Panthers survive in the wild – clinging to less than five percent of their historic range.
On April 6, 2011 a federal district judge dismissed the groups’ lawsuit.
The judge's order recognized the panther's gravely imperiled status, citing to prior cases which called the panther "one of the rarest large mammals in the United States" and "one of the most endangered large mammals in the world." Nevertheless, the judge found that, because the panther was listed as endangered before the critical habitat provisions were added to the Endangered Species Act, the Service’s action was entirely discretionary and therefore not subject to judicial review.
Andrew McElwaine, President of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, pointed out that "in effect, the Judge said the Service does not have to designate critical habitat for the panther because the panther has been endangered for too long. We trust the 11th Circuit will reverse."
Frank Jackalone, Florida Staff Director for the Sierra Club, said the ruling was especially disappointing in light of the heavy mortality to the panther population last year and so far in 2011. According to Jackalone, 23 panthers were killed last year, and 11 more have already died in 2011, mostly due to collisions with cars. The 2011 figures may be understated, as some recent panther deaths have not been publicly posted because they are still under official investigation.
"You can't protect endangered species without protecting the places they live and that’s what needs to happen to give the Florida panther any shot at survival," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We’re confident that the appellate court will recognize that the Interior Department has the authority and the urgent responsibility to protect critical habitat for the panther, which is disappearing as gated subdivisions and strip malls replace forests and wetlands in South Florida."
"Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an extinction strategy rather than a recovery strategy for the Florida panther," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who also notes that the Service’s science has been manipulated to mask the truly dire plight of the panther.
Ann Hauck, of the Council of Civic Associations, states: "The Service has not issued a single jeopardy Biological Opinion for the entire Southeastern United States since 1993, even as unchecked development has caused increasing panther deaths. The Florida panther is going to disappear forever unless the federal government undertakes protective measures that work."