Pathway for the Florida Panther? Environmentalist explains why ‘state animal’ may not survive development in Collier County

Published: January 17, 2023 3:43 PM EST
Updated: January 17, 2023 3:47 PM EST

The population explosion and housing shortage in Florida are intensifying the demand for solutions. In Collier County, leaders say there’s room to develop enough housing to more than double its current population. But critics say plans in the pipeline don’t leave a pathway for the panther — Florida’s state mascot.

WINK News investigative reporter Céline McArthur digs into the debate to find out if progress and protection can truly co-exist.

When it comes to developing rural lands, everyone sees green. For developers, green is money. For environmentalists, it’s this: untouched lands that are home to endangered animals. I introduce you to one man who’s on a mission to protect what he can before he says it’s paved over and gone for good. That includes the Florida panther.

“The Florida dream for an environmentalist is becoming the Florida nightmare,” said Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director, South Florida Wildlands Association.

Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director, South Florida Wildlands Association. (Credit: WINK News)

Schwartz says tracking new development in our community can be a full-time job.

“I have enough on my plate, just figuring out where development is coming in,” said Schwartz. “What’s there now? How will the development impact what’s there now?”

He believes this rural land in eastern Collier County should be treasured.

Rural Collier County. (Credit: WINK News)

“An area we call the Amazon of North America,” said Schwartz. “These areas are incredibly biodiverse. This is a wetland. This is a rare North American tropical wetland, and it contains species found nowhere else… many endangered species, many species on the federally endangered list.”

The Florida panther tops that list.

“It’s the last big cat in the Eastern US, and he lives here in Southwest Florida, right here where we are. That means a lot to a lot of people. It’s sort of a symbol of the wilderness, to have Florida Panthers in this area,” said Schwartz.

Florida panthers are dying at an alarming rate. Schwartz created this map to illustrate where and how many of them are killed on the roadways.

Schwartz’s map of Florida panther deaths.

“More development, more cars, more road kill, it’s just inevitable. And right now, road kill is by far the leading cause of death for the Florida Panthers. 25-a-year, roughly,” said Schwartz.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 27 panthers died in 2022. 25 of those were killed by cars, and more than half of them were in Collier County. The first panther of 2023 died on January 9th, also in Collier County.

“So, we have a population of 120 to 230. And you’re losing 20, 30, up to 40 panthers a year. How can that population continue with that amount of take going on?”

Schwartz shared the findings with the Collier County Commission at a meeting about the Immokalee Road Rural Village development last September.

Collier County Commission meeting.

“Look at where this property is. It’s located smack in the middle of this entire complex,” said Schwartz.

Despite his concerns, the Commission approved a land-use amendment to allow a new housing development to go in next to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Commissioner Bill McDaniel, the chairman at the time, explained to me why he supports the project.

“Growth is inevitable,” said McDaniel. “We have to have a place for the people to live.”

Collier County Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel speaking with WINK News Investigative Reporter Celine McArthur. (Credit: WINK News)

He says landowner rights come before environmental concerns.

“So, they make these representations like, it’s going to be the end because it gathers a lot of drama and a lot of emotion. But we’re dealing with pragmatism here, we’re dealing with vested real property rights that landowners are entitled to,” said McDaniel.

“There will always be people that care more about the four-legged critters than my favorite Florida Wildlife,” said McDaniel. “Do you know what my favorite Florida Wildlife is? The human race.”

Schwartz says that perspective could have devastating consequences as more projects go through the approval process.

“The Immokalee Road Rural Village, I mentioned that to you. That’s a down payment on dozens of projects that are coming into this area,” said Schwartz.

US Fish and Wildlife Services created an environmental impact report for Collier County in 2017. It says more than two-thirds of the county’s land is protected; however, “conserving panther habitat on private lands is essential for advancing panther recovery throughout its range.” The draft report also offered ways to strike a balance among agriculture, economic development, and species conservation.

“They reviewed it over a period of 10 years, and they basically said they didn’t actually finish it, because the landowners quit before the final draft opinion turned into a final opinion. But the research is all there,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz believes less research is going into development decisions and approvals, and he explains why. In 2020, the Trump Administration transferred authority over wetlands from the federal to state level. The feds required expert input from US Fish and Wildlife. The state doesn’t.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” said Schwartz.

And he wants that decision reversed. I asked him how big of a battle he thinks that will be.

“That’s going to be a battle,” said Schwartz. “I don’t see any other solution than taking authority away from, ultimate authority away from the state, which has been giving out wetland permits like candy canes and Christmas.”

He fears this new system encourages development at the cost of preservation, and he pledges to keep fighting.

We reached out to the federal and state agencies to hear what they have to say about this. So far, no response. We’ll keep you posted.