Officials ponder Fla. panther-human encounters

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Growing up with the Florida panther
As Collier expands, officials look for solutions to encounters with panthers


Friday, October 17, 2008

NAPLES — Call it a catfight.

A rebounding panther population in Collier County is cause for celebration among conservationists, but with that victory come the problems inherent as panthers and humans both spread into new territory.

The expansion of panther habitat clashes with the needs of an expanding human habitat on some of the county’s road projects.

“The (panther) population as a whole has increased since 1995, and the range increases too,” said Dave Onorato, an associate research scientist with the Florida Panther Project of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Only so many panthers can exist in one area before they don’t get along.”

Though nature conservation in Southwest Florida is hardly a new concept, the issue of panther protection along roadways is still emerging. Counties and conservation groups are still groping along, trying to figure out how to resolve conflicts in some way that provides a road map for future projects.

When an entity — public or private — decides to build a road in an area, state and federal agencies have to determine the environmental impacts. Through a formula that takes into account the size of the impacted land and the type of vegetation there, that entity is required to pay into a mitigation program.

Florida Conservation Bank LLC is one such program set up to benefit an orange grove that is designated as a conservation easement. The money contributed by developers and by local governments, such as Collier County, will help maintain that land in perpetuity.

That is part of an argument for the county to buy its own conservation lands to maintain as part of an in-house mitigation program. The practice in place now is like outsourcing to a foreign country, said Kevin Dugan, a project manager in Collier County’s Transportation Engineering and Construction Management department.

“The cost (of mitigation) just keeps going up,” Dugan said. “Through Conservation Collier they’re starting to buy the larger tracts of land now. … It’s going to still cost us to restore those areas, but at least it’s under the county’s control.”

And control is the key issue.

County officials are currently engaged in a back-and-forth with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to hammer out an agreement on wildlife crossings, the underpasses on more rural roads used by panthers, deer and all manner of smaller critters. Once in place, the agreement would formally recognize the importance of wildlife crossings by the county and solidify the county’s pledge to build them in some of Collier’s easternmost reaches.

That agreement was on the table at this week’s meeting of the Collier Board of County Commissioners, but it was pulled pending further discussion about whether such crossings will help defray the overall cost of mitigation in building new roads and upgrading existing ones.

The county is in the process of installing two wildlife crossings on Oil Well Road, leading to the town of Ave Maria in the eastern portion of Collier County. The cost of one crossing, from raw materials to construction, can approach $2.5 million. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service is withholding approval to reduce mitigation costs in exchange for those two crossings, said Dugan, the manager for the Oil Well Road project.

“We took it for granted that by paying for two animal crossings it would cover our costs of panther mitigation,” Dugan said. “Fish and Wildlife has tunnel vision. They can’t see the overall benefit.”

The issue often comes down to funding.

“If there’s roadway projects that we have to put these crossings in the future, and it comes to mitigation and they say, ‘we want you to have five crossings,’ how are we going to finance that?” asked Claudine Auclair, a principal planner in Collier’s Transportation Planning Department.

Auclair doesn’t necessarily have the answers, either. It could come down to additional impact fees for developments built in more environmentally sensitive areas. Or, if county officials are successful in the case of Oil Well Road, it could mean some sort of exchange of wildlife crossings for impact fees.

Auclair is overseeing a study examining possible routes for an extension of Wilson Boulevard southward through Belle Meade, running parallel to Collier Boulevard. It is an area that has witnessed a steady expansion of panthers in recent years, said Onorato.

He is concerned about the furthest inland route for the extension, one of several under consideration. It is a route often traveled by panthers, many of whom have wandered north from Picayune Strand State Forest in search of territory not occupied by competing cats.

“If you look at these maps, recent use of that corridor by panthers is major,” said Nancy Payton, the Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation. “Building (the road) further east is more of a problem.”

Payton said she would like to see more attention paid to alternative modes of transportation, such as rail travel, buses and greenways. Payton also said she often fears that the county is dragging its feet on wildlife mitigation.

“It’s the county’s obligation to build those crossings,” Payton said. “They should be building them as part of their road-building requirements. I know there’s resentment from the county on that, but that’s just the way it is — it’s one of their obligations.”

Dugan and Auclair agree with Payton on the necessity of those obligations. But Dugan said it is the hesitation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give the county credit for those crossings that draws resentment.

And without quick resolution, it is likely to become more of an issue in the coming years, as Collier County’s growth takes place in the eastern reaches of the county, populated by sensitive wetlands and endangered panthers.

“You build a town out here, then they expect the county to build a road out to it,” said Dugan. “Not only are they going to have to pay the cost of the road, but they’re going to have to pay the mitigation out to it. The cost of mitigation is almost the same as building a road.”

It still isn’t clear who “they” are in this equation. However, one thing is clear: If the competing human groups — from local governments to developers to wildlife agencies cannot agree — it will be the animal inhabitants that pay the price.

“The main thing is trying to find a balance between both of these,” Onorato said. “The panther is kind of the last symbol of real wilderness in Florida. I think, in general, Floridians are very dedicated to protecting the panther.”

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