Sarasota, Florida -- Last November, faced with an alarming rise in deaths among Florida's 100 or so remaining panthers, mostly from auto accidents, the Sierra Club petitioned the Department of the Interior to establish 3 million acres of critical habitat for the panther. In December, we told the government that if it didn't act, we would ask a court to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to map out the necessary habitat for the species. The Fish and Wildlife Service had already refused to do so -- continuing its decades-long unwillingness to carry out its duties under the critical-habitats section of the Endangered Species Act.
So this morning the Sierra Club, along with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and three other groups, filed suit. We pointed out that the government has listed the Florida panther as endangered for more than 30 years, that although its population recovered to about 130 it has since declined as development roads invaded and fragmented the panther's habitat, and that climate disruption means that the panther will need more, not less, connected habitat to survive.
Although the Department of the Interior does require other federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service's biologists before approving roads and other development projects, in the lack of a designated area of critical habitat, not a single proposed development has been stopped as a result of those consultations. Now new developments -- entire new cities, in fact -- are proposed inside the most critical remaining panther habitat areas. Florida's state animal is in real danger of joining California's -- the California grizzly -- as an emblem of extinction.
Panthers usually stay south of Sarasota, which lies north of the Caloosahatchee River, which has marked the northern edge of remaining panther habitat. (Panthers originally ranged up and down the East Coast, so the reason panthers aren't found this far north today is not for lack of suitable prey but because they were hunted out and their habitat fragmented, except in south Florida's swamps.) In our petition in November, the Sierra Club for the first time requested that the government also protect vital panther habitat north of the Caloosahatchee River in the Duette Park, Avon Park, Babcock-Webb, and Fisheating Creek areas. This habitat would provide the panthers with room to migrate and allow it to adapt to climate change as its impacts intensify in south Florida. Without such habitat, in addition to protected lands in south Florida, the panther could go extinct in the next century.
And as if to prove our point, this weekend for the first time since 2005 there was a confirmed panther sighting north of the Caloosahatchee, in the Carlton Reserve outside town.
The panther sighting is, understandably, creating more local buzz than our lawsuit -- but when the big cat itself shows up to support litigation on its behalf, you have to think the government should listen.