Proposed Mega-Development Could Pose Threat to Iconic Florida Panther

Panther crossing sign in Florida
Panther crossing signs like this one dot the roads in Florida. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)
Florida panther
Elusive, beautiful and incredibly vulnerable, this Florida-dwelling cougar subspecies has rebounded but new development remains a threat. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

The naming of state animals is a funny thing. A critter's emblematic nature either represents a wild ubiquity — a state can be positively crawling with them — or they can be elusive and on the verge of extinction, which is often why they're ultimately selected ... to raise awareness of their plight.

In Florida, the official state animal, a subspecies of cougar known as the Florida panther, very much falls into the latter camp.

Selected by schoolchildren as the state's official state animal via a statewide poll in 1981, the Florida panther isn't just one of the most vulnerable animals representing a state — the subspecies is by far the most endangered big cat in North America and, at one point, was one of the rarest mammals in the entire world. Not too long before it beat out the manatee (already the state's official marine animal), the alligator and the Key deer in the 1981 poll, you could practically count the number of Florida panthers left in the wild on two hands.

Today, the subspecies' numbers have rebounded significantly. And while no longer classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these enigmatic big cats with sleek tawny coats that roam the forested swamps and pinelands of the Sunshine State are still considered at-risk and remain protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

With no natural predators aside from alligators, the top threats to the survival of the Florida panther are cars — vehicle collisions remain the top human-related cause of death for the animals — as well as habitat destruction and fragmentation. Habitat loss remains a particularly pressing concern, especially in southwest Florida where development in rural areas is commencing at a breakneck pace and threatens to undo any progress made in bringing this rare cougar, whose current numbers are struggling to top 200 adults, back to life.

And there's no greater example of the fight to preserve and protect crucial Florida panther habitat as in rural Collier County.

Panther crossing sign in Florida
Panther crossing signs like this one dot the roads in Florida. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

'... the future survival of the species will be at question'

Best known for being home to a portion of National Everglades Park and for its ultra-affluent, golf course-heavy coastal cities of Naples and Marco Island, Collier County turns overwhelmingly rural when you turn eastward.

As the Guardian reports, it's here that 45,000 acres of woodland and pasture will be leveled in the coming years to make way for several sprawling master-planned communities. These self-contained mini-cities would come complete with thousands of new homes, countless miles of new roadways and even sand and gravel mining operations.

Of the 45,000 acres — out of 150,000 privately owned acres in total — planned for development, 20,000 acres are considered by the National Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to be a "primary zone" for the Florida panther. In other words, these rural stretches of Collier County are where the last of a dwindling and isolated subspecies best thrive; it's a place that's "essential for the survival of the Florida panther in the wild" in the words of the FWS.

Map of Florida cougar range
An opportunistic carnivore, the Florida panther once had a sprawling range. Today, the big cat's habitat is limited to a shrinking section of southern Florida. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A coalition of 11 different landowners collectively known as Eastern Collier Property Owners own this crucial "primary zone" and the large expanse of rural land around it. Because the 50-year mega-development plan could adversely impact multiple federally protected species, the coalition was required to submit a formal "habitat conservation plan" to the FWS for approval or denial. In its proposal, the landowners tout the fact that a majority of the development-ready land — about 107,000 acres — would be preserved as habitat for the Florida panther and other threatened or endangered species including the gopher tortoise, indigo snake, wood stork, caracara and semi-adorable Florida bonneted bat.

But per the Naples Daily News, many conservationists aren't convinced.

Citing a study commissioned to illustrate the impact of development in such an ecologically vital area, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida argues that development "clusters" would further fragment the panther's habitat and make it all the more difficult for the big cats to roam. Natural corridors used by panthers to move across the landscape would essentially be cut off.

"The effect on the corridors was a very striking result," said Amber Crooks, environmental policy manager for the Conservancy, explains to the Naples Daily News of the study. "I wasn't necessarily expecting it to be as dramatic as we saw. But I think it's very helpful information that hopefully the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider, because it could have population level effects."

The Naples Daily News goes on to note that portions of the 45,000 acres in question have already been developed. This includes Ava Maria, a 5,000-acre master-planned college town with a Catholic bent envisioned by Tom Monaghan, the former Detroit Tigers owner best known for founding Domino's Pizza and being one of the country's preeminent fanciers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Nearby, another proposed town dubbed Rural Lands West would include 10,000 new homes and an estimated 1.9 million square feet of commercial space spread across 4,000 acres.

"This area of the county was really never anticipated to have this magnitude of development," Crooks explains. "The science even goes so far as to say that this is the core area that needs to be avoided. And if there are losses in the primary zone habitat area, that the future survival of the species will be at question."

Two juvenile Florida panthers
Two juvenile Florida panthers. While there are significantly more Florida panthers than there were two or three decades ago, today only around 200 remain in the wild. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A contentious issue in fast-developing Collier County

Landowners in Collier County counter that claims development would permanently sever crucial wildlife corridors just aren't true.

Speaking to the Naples Daily News, Christian Spiker, vice president for land management for landowner Collier Enterprises, argues that the approach outlined in the conversation proposal sets out to not only "preserve but enhance these corridors." He also notes that clustering development won't increase the chance of vehicular collisions with panthers. Rather, densely situated new roadways will be less deadly and "more efficient."

The proposal drafted by Collier Enterprises and others also sets aside funding for conservation projects including the aforementioned enhancement and widening of wildlife corridors, erecting panther fencing and acquiring additional land that would be set aside as habitat. As the Naples Daily News explains, the fund "would pool money from transfer fees as homes are sold and resold and from contributions made as lands are developed, is expected to raise $150 million over 50 years."

In the meantime, local public opinion on the matter remains split following a 45-day public comment period that wrapped up in December. Some residents have praised the landowners' outwardly pro-conservation plans while others have sided with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and other groups including the Sierra Club in arguing that any development in core habitat areas will result in irreparable damage to the Florida panther and other species teetering on the brink of extinction.

To date, the FWS has not made a final decision as to whether or not it will accept the proposal in its current sate or request further changes that ultimately might appease those rallying against it. That decision must be made by the end of April.

Crooks laments that despite attracting significant local attention, the public comment period was woefully short. The FWS rejected efforts to extend it or hold public meetings due to abbreviated deadlines established by the Trump administration.

"It was a quick 45 days," Crooks tells the Guardian. "Certainly we would have liked more time."

Brad Cornell, policy director for Audubon of the Western Everglades, has worked closely with the landowners on improving the habitat conservation plan. He ultimately wants to see the proposal gain approval by the FWS and believes that, in the end, it will benefit panthers and other endangered species due largely to the fact that it sets aside over 100,000 acres of non-primary zone land for preservation and will lead to less habitat-fragmenting development in the future.

"I have yet to see any alternative that is better than that," he tells the Naples Daily News. "We know it's not perfect and we're working to make it better.

Defenders of Wildlife is another organization that's worked with the landowners to tweak and improve the proposal. Elizabeth Fleming, the organization's Florida representative, explains to the Guardian that the landowners have been receptive to changes, even though she is not "completely satisfied with what they have turned in to FWS."

"We continued to submit comments as part of the public process and hope they will take into account some of our suggestions and make this plan better."

Many folks including Crooks aren't entirely convinced that the rosy-hued nudging performed by Defenders of Wildlife and others will have an impact.

She tells the Guardian: "Even after a decade of trying both from the inside with those groups sitting at the table with the landowners, and pushing from the outside, this plan still has so many fatal flaws that we hope the service [the FWS] will see, and deny it."

For a more overview of the past triumphs and future challenges facing this unique and beautiful big cat, do check out "Phantom of the Pines," a fantastic short documentary produced by Blue Ridge Outdoors, below: