Posted on April 26, 2016 · Posted in Land

Any hope that South Florida’s endangered panthers will eventually spread hundreds of miles north to as far as the Orlando area and beyond may hinge on a proposal for immense development near Naples.

A growth plan by nine Collier County landowners encompasses 152,124 acres, an area that spans important panther territory and is nearly as big as some counties in the state.

Amid that expanse, construction of subdivisions and business areas would claim 45,000 acres. The remaining 107,000 acres would be set aside for protection of panthers and other imperiled wildlife, a trade-off triggering sharply divided reaction from environmentalists.

Audubon Florida backs the proposal as smart planning for such a large area, but Emily Ruff of Orlando, who opposes Florida’s revived hunting of bears, said giving up any of the perilously little habitat for panthers would push them toward extinction.

“It’s hard to see how this plan could ever be acceptable,” said Ruff, who has organized Orlando-area residents in opposition to the project.

The land belongs to prominent sugar, citrus and cattle enterprises, including a ranch owned by Aliese Priddy. In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott appointed her as a member of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. While that state agency has a role in protecting panthers, the development proposal is now navigating complex bureaucracy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A potential outcome would be the agency issuing a permit within two years for “incidental take” of panthers. Such a permit essentially would authorize unintentional harm to the animals – for example, if they are forced off territory by a builder or hit by a car.

Ken McDonald, the service’s lead biologist reviewing the development proposal, said his agency ultimately will determine a specific quota for incidental take but much remains to be learned before then.

“Anybody offering an opinion about whether or not this action would help or hinder the survival of the species, I would like to see analysis informing that opinion,” McDonald said. “Because I haven’t done the analysis yet and I’m not aware of anyone who has.”

Still not clear, he said, is the number of panthers, thought to be a few hundred, or whether the species is stabilizing sufficiently after a plunge toward extinction. McDonald said an incidental-take permit would be issued “only if it wouldn’t appreciably reduce the likelihood of the survival and recovery” of panthers.

Key to an incidental-take permit will be the agency’s examination of details behind the concept of protecting more than 107,000 acres to compensate for environmental damage from developing 45,000 acres.

To Ruff of Orlando it makes little sense that such a vast spread of roads and rooftops into the heart of panther country would improve the cat’s plight. Also critical of the proposal is the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which is dedicated to environmental protection in Collier and four neighboring counties.

Among the group’s concerns is potential habitat loss for other rare species, including the scrub jay, caracara, wood stork, red-cockaded woodpecker, snail kite, indigo snake and bonneted bat. Likely to occur, according to the group, would be ripples of additional development triggered by construction within the 45,000 acres.

“Our primary objection is not that development is going to go there, or even how much development, but it’s the location on what’s considered primary panther habitat,” said Rob Moher, the group’s chief executive officer.

Brad Cornell, policy associate with Audubon Florida and the Audubon of the Western Everglades chapter, supports the development proposal.

He said landowners’ quest for a take permit is tied to broad and stringent requirements of Collier County’s Rural Lands Stewardship Area program.

Cornell said the 45,000 acres are poor or marginal for panther habitat and the remaining 107,000 acres will be improved and set aside for permanent protection.

“There are ways this plan can be improved,” Cornell said. “But the concept, we think, is an excellent concept.”

Click on the image to view an Orlando Sentinel news video on endangered South Florida panther land

Click on the image to view an Orlando Sentinel news video on endangered South Florida panther land

















Source: SunSentinel

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