Creative Loafing report on panther destruction

Florida Panthers face extinction thanks to developers, their politicians and a few cowering wildlife officials

April 22, 2010 at 8:47 am by Kelly Cornelius
http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/dailyloaf/2010/04/22/florida-panthers-face-extinction-thanks-to-developers-their-politicians-and-a-few-cowering-wildlife-officials/

2154774825_87fd3f657bCraig Pittman of the St. Pete Times had a series of articles out over the weekend exposing what seemed to be corruption and collusion of government officials and so called experts regarding the fate of Florida’s state animal and it is truly sickening.

You might remember Pittman’s award winning series Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands. Both should be required reading for not only ever Floridian voter but every elected official that ever has a vote on land use. His recent exposé on the panthers points out that we only have about 100 remaining panthers and Craig Pittman of the St. Pete Times had a series of articles out over the weekend exposing what seemed to be corruption and collusion of government officials and so called experts regarding the fate of Florida’s state animal and it is truly sickening.

You might remember Pittman’s award winning series Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands. Both should be required reading for not only ever Floridian voter but every elected official that ever has a vote on land use. His recent exposé on the panthers points out that we only have about 100 remaining panthers and lack of habitat has the state animal facing almost certain extinction. They have faced it before when a genetic flaw due to longtime low numbers in the population forced inbreeding which was helped by bringing in cougars from Texas. The numbers are up (if you want to call 80-100 cats in total up) but the lack of critical habitat is now the biggest flaw in the big cat’s survival plan. Sure the Florida Panther is protected but evidently that just means you can’t kill one directly. There are no rules about killing them slowly by destroying their natural habitat with rooftops (or running over them with cars). Developer initiated and politician blessed sprawl is the biggest threat to the Florida Panther and right now that sprawl is winning. As Pitmann’s first article points out:

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which spends more than $1.2 million a year on panther protection, has not blocked a single development that altered panther habitat. Former agency employees say every time they tried, “we were told that, politically, it would be a disaster,” said Linda Ferrell, who retired from the agency in 2005.

Later the article revealed the massive volume of habitat approved for development even when the numbers of panthers had dipped as low as 30.

federal officials granted permits that converted panther habitat into a new university, new roads and subdivisions — including one ironically called the Habitat. Since the Texas cougar experiment began, the wildlife service has said yes to 113 projects that if built would wipe out more than 42,000 acres of panther habitat.

As Pittman’s articles explain, female panthers need 29,000 acres and males need 62,000 acres so saving enough habitat is the key to saving the species. And the remaining land in Southwest Florida where the panther roams is quickly being eaten up by development. The article also describes some of those recent developments:

Most of the projects the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved since 1995 are in Collier County. The largest is the new town of Ave Maria, which in 2005 was given permission to destroy 5,027 acres of habitat that had been 9 miles from the nearest suburb.

Ave Maria is a development that includes a Catholic University which sits in the middle of critical panther habitat. I couldn’t help but wonder WWJD? I bet he would have opted to save the big cats instead of approving sprawl….. even it it was religious sprawl.

The result of developing what is left of the panther’s territory? From the research that I did I found that in 2007 15 panthers were killed by cars. In 2008 10 panthers were struck and killed by vehicles and in 2009 a record 17 panthers were killed by cars. So cars alone are wiping out almost 20% of the total population per year.

Pittman’s second article tells the sordid story how a panel of experts convened for two years in order to make the recommendations on the amount of land needed to save the species, and yet their report was never published. It appears their project was also hijacked in a sense by developers with an interest in developing the habitat.  The developers even produced their own report on how to save the panther which included them getting to develop a huge chunk of the land in that primary zone. Which developers? WilsonMiller. You might remember that name from a recent post I did on the secret development deal to turn our state fairgrounds into a shopping mall and hotel. Maybe they can donate a statue of the panther on it?

Pittman also describes how so called wildlife experts were forbidden to use the phrase critical habitat or the word jeopardy regarding objections over land developments. Yes, it sounds like even some of the biologist experts, who I bet are paid with tax dollars, sold out the panther’s future in order to keep their jobs. It is bad enough that developers have forced their way in, it is even worse that politicians allow them to but to have some of the very officials that the public pays to protect this species selling them out in order to keep their jobs is the hardest to swallow.

The Sierra Club (of which I am a proud new member) has a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate critical habitat for the panther.

I wondered what our state Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) is doing about this so I looked them up. There was nothing about the panther on their conservation issues page. Plugging in Florida Panther in the search section of their site got me to their Panthernet page where I saw they were promoting the fact that Collier County Commissioners proclaimed March 14th -20th as Save the Florida Panther week. Ironic to anybody else that it was the Collier County Commission that approved that Ave Maria development in the first place? A picture of a drug dealer sporting a Say No to Drugs bumper sticker on his car came to mind.

I contacted the FWC and asked them what exactly they are doing for the panthers. I asked for any opinions they have issued and if they have ever stopped any developments in critical habitats and will let you know of their response. I did find this article in the Times showing that the FWC were involved in conservation banking which sounds good on its face but that means that if a developer wants to purchase credits then it is really because they are impacting critical habitat somewhere else. In other words, more of the already scarce habitat is being paved over somewhere.

Reading the bios of the Florida Wildlife Commissioners was somewhat disturbing. There are seven appointed members on the board (that the Governor appoints) and every single member had direct development ties! 100% were directly involved with construction, land use, and real estate. Let’s take a look:

1. Chairman Rodney Barreto from his bio:

Barreto is President and CEO of Barreto Group, Inc. a diversified company specializing in corporate and public affairs consulting and real estate investment. Its consulting division is well-positioned to represent a wide array of clients on local issues.  The Barreto Group’s real-estate division handles land acquisition, zoning and development.

2. Vice Chairman Richard Corbett from his bio:

The real estate investor traces his interest in fish and wildlife conservation back to when he was an 8-year-old hunting and fishing in upstate New York.

3. Kathy Barco from her bio:

Barco is president of Barco-Duval Engineering, Inc., a heavy-construction company.

4. Ron Bergeron from his bio:

Bergeron, an engineering contractor, is president and owner of Bergeron Family of Companies, based in Ft. Lauderdale.

5. Dwight Stephenson from his bio:

Stephenson is president of D. Stephenson Construction, Inc. – a general construction firm.

6. Kenneth Wright from his bio:

Wright is a partner in the Orlando law firm Shutts & Bowen, where he has worked since 1989.

I looked up Mr. Wright’s firm to see what kind of an attorney he was because I suspected probably land use and ……………..bingo.

7. Brian S. Yablonski from his bio:

Yablonski works as the vice president of public affairs for the St. Joe Company.

For those of you not familiar with the St. Joe Company you can find out more here.

All seven Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission members directly linked with development. And we are shocked that the panther’s habitat hasn’t been adequately protected by it’s own state commission?

What can you do? I am still in the process of finding out, but you can join the Sierra Club here. You can contact the Federal Wildlife Commission here. You can contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission here. Stay updated, get involved and spread the word otherwise the only hope of seeing a panther is on a subdivision sign maybe called Panther Trace without a trace of a real panther.

If we can’t save the big cats what will be our next state animal? A greedy politician or a well connected developer? Sadly we have an overpopulation of both of those species and the impending loss of our great cats drives home the need more than ever for Florida Hometown Democracy (which gives voters the final word on sprawl this November). We have given politicians a chance to shape how our state grows and the result is the snuffing out of our state animal. If we sit back and allow this to continue, which species will be next?

Photo Credit: Monica R. @Flickr.com

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