Court rules against environmental groups over panther 'critical habitat'

Environmental groups have lost another round in their fight with federal wildlife officials over how to protect habitat for the endangered Florida panther.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have to designate so-called "critical habitat" for the panther because the wild cat was listed as an endangered species in 1967, before critical habitat provisions were added to the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Southwest Florida-based Council of Civic Associations have been petitioning to get a critical habitat label across 3 million acres in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties since 2009.

Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said late Wednesday afternoon that the groups had not discussed their next move and had not had enough time to review the ruling or comment on it.

After a U.S. District Court judge in Fort Myers dismissed their original lawsuit in 2010, the groups said the decision, upheld Wednesday, was based on a legal technicality and not on the merits of the need for a critical habitat designation.

The groups have argued that dwindling habitat for the panther in Southwest Florida is putting a squeeze on a growing population and is threatening its recovery.

The designation would mean that developers would have to show that their projects would not "result in the destruction or adverse modification" of critical habitat for the panther, an additional hurdle to the existing legal standard that a project not "jeopardize the continued existence" of the panther.

Scientists estimate as many as 160 panthers remain in the wild, up from as few as 30 in the 1980s. A genetic restoration project is credited with bringing the population back from the brink of extinction.

The legal fight over panther habitat protection has pitted critical habitat backers against a coalition of other environmental groups and landowners in eastern Collier County.

They are pushing a rival plan, called a Habitat Conservation Plan, that would set up a new framework by which federal permitters would allow development in panther habitat in exchange for panther habitat preservation.

"We are on the right track for doing the right thing for the Florida panther," said Mitch Hutchcraft, vice president for real estate for landowner Consolidated Citrus.

Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton decried the legal fight over the critical habitat designation as a waste of money for both sides.

"We could have used that money to do positive things that would have benefitted the panther today," she said.

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 9

babsmn writes:

Hopefully the Florida Panther! Plus, if the developers are not slowed down, we will have buildings from here to the east coast. If you worry about crime, just think what that would bring.

Anti-Stupid61 writes:

Sorry guys, the panthers don't have the money the developers do. Greed will probably beat compassion.

marti43 writes:

It sounds to me like the critical habitat is a good idea and to deny it because of an endangered species designation prior to the insitiution of the requirement is backwards thinking. My first impression was that someone got to the judge. I would not be surprised. Since the early endangered species designation has NOT helped, the panther needs to be included and developers stopped cold.

swamp4ever writes:

Do the environmental groups have to pay the legal fees of the taxpayers to defend this frivalous suit?

wardpo writes:

Rather than develope new areas in panther country, the blasted developers ought to concentrate on redeveloping the blighted areas they helped develope in the first place.

bana writes:


brianorlando writes:

as if we need more s----- crap to be built in Naples. Protect this cat from the rednecks in collier!

SkeeterBeater writes:

Maybe You Bunny Huggers should just pitch in and buy all that Land from the People who paid lot,s of Money for it.
Bet If You owned 500 Acres out there and Somebody stopped You from using it , You,d be singing a different song now.

PeaceandLove writes:

Dear SkeeterBeater:

Write much?

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