For Immediate Release, February 18, 2010
Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club, (727) 824-8813
Andrew McElwaine, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (239) 403-4210
Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity, (575) 534-0360
Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (202) 265-7337
Ann Hauck, Council of Civic Associations, (239) 495-7379
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sued Over Repeated Failure to Protect Endangered Florida Panther
SARASOTA, Fla.-- Five conservation groups, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and the Council for Civic Associations, filed a lawsuit today in Federal District Court in Fort Myers, Florida against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its failure to protect the Florida panther.
Fewer than 100 Florida panthers survive in the wild, clinging to less than 5 percent of their historic range within a handful of South Florida counties. It is the last of the eastern cougars which once roamed across the southern United States, and is the last species of large cat east of the Mississippi River.
Although the panther has been listed as an endangered species since 1967, the Service has never designated critical habitat for the species. Critical habitat is a geographic area necessary to help an endangered species recover its population; its designation is a critical tool within the Endangered Species Act. Species with designated critical habitat have been shown to be twice as likely to recover as species without it.
In 2009 the five groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther. After more than a year of dithering, on February 11, 2010 the Service gave notice to the groups that it was denying their petitions and refusing to designate critical habitat. The groups are now suing to protect the panther's last remaining habitat before it is irreversibly lost due to sprawl development and climate change.
Currently, large-scale development projects are being planned in the habitat panthers depend on for survival. Over the past two decades the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved every development proposal in panther habitat. The last rejection came in 1993.
Said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club: "We have very few areas of disagreement with the Obama administration, but the failure to designate critical habitat for the Florida panther is one of them. It's clear that the Florida panther will become extinct unless we immediately move to protect its last remaining habitat — habitat that already under serious threat from the impacts of climate change. The measures taken until now have failed to do so and the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to follow the science and the law and change course in order to prevent this important species from going the way the of the dodo."
Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said: "Florida panthers are nearly extinct. The best available science tells us that we must protect the habitat of the Florida panther to allow these magnificent cats to survive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a responsibility to protect these animals – and their failure to do so has led to this lawsuit."
Eric Huber, Sierra Club senior staff attorney representing the groups, said: "The Service completely failed to respond to the science in our petitions to designate critical habitat or to consider the effects of global warming on panther habitat in any way. The Service's refusal to take all available measures under the Endangered Species Act to protect this beautiful creature is indefensible."
According to Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity: "The Florida panther and the myriad other rare wildlife that share the unique ecosystem of Southwest Florida will disappear from our world forever unless critical habitat is designated in accordance with the law. We just can't stand by while the Florida panther goes extinct and the balance of nature that it helps maintain is completely unraveled."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said: "Recent actions by the Obama administration indicate that its efforts to protect endangered species will be as anemic as its predecessor. The Florida panther is a prime example of the federal government ignoring the science and its own scientists due to political factors."
Said Ann Hauck, president of the Council of Civic Associations: "The Florida panther has lost 95 percent of its historic range. The Council of Civic Associations' short-term goal is to prevent development in primary panther habitat and to prevent the federal government from piecemeal permitting that does nothing to address cumulative impacts. The current U.S. FWS guidelines are that unless it can be proven that a project will wipe out the entire species then the Service cannot or will not issue a Jeopardy Biological Opinion, hence the Service has issued only one jeopardy opinion since 1993 and that was for a critter in Tennessee."
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