By Bonnie Malloy
2022 is barely two months old and already seven endangered Florida panthers have been killed on roadways – an average of about one every week. It’s hard to process this ongoing tragedy along with all the other things in the world. But we can’t let our despair at seeing so many panthers killed by vehicles obscure the fact that there are concrete actions we can — and must — insist that our government leaders take to change the future for panthers.
And we have a special opportunity right now.
Floridian Shannon Estenoz was tapped by President Joe Biden to be assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, in charge of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Estenoz, who was formerly with the Everglades Foundation, is among the top U.S. officials in charge of protecting endangered species. How significant it would be to witness a Floridian in the federal government work to save the panther, our official state animal. Only an estimated 120-240 Florida panthers remain on Earth – all clustered in fast-developing southwest Florida. They need our protection more than ever. But human-caused threats are mounting.
Here are a few key actions we should insist that local and federal officials like Estenoz take to stop these spiraling panther deaths:
- Strengthen federal protections for Florida panthers under the Endangered Species Act to make sure they aren’t harmed by the new roads and traffic that will come with massive housing and commercial developments now planned in panther habitat. There’s been talk that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering down-listing the panthers from endangered to threatened – an absurd idea.
- Deny permits that threaten panthers, including wetlands destruction and oil drilling permits in the Big Cypress National Preserve near Everglades National Park, one of the last wild places panthers call home. A recent move by a southwest Florida rancher to have federal authorities remove a young panther from the wild is just one more example of how the species is not being properly protected.
- Stop the extremely questionable arrangement where landowners in panther territory have been paying staff costs for public employees at the very U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office charged with reviewing their development plans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector General’s investigation should thoroughly examine this arrangement to ensure that it doesn’t compromise panther protections.
- Return federal wetlands permitting authority to the federal government rather than allow Florida to give developers a free pass to harm endangered species, including Florida panthers.
- Revisit the ill-conceived decision to open the 25,560-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to more people and activities without providing proper resources for monitoring and enforcement.
Our state animal has never been in greater danger and the constant toll of panther deaths on highways is heartbreaking evidence that we are not doing enough. It’s painfully clear that now is the time to double down on protections for Florida panthers and ensure these magnificent animals survive and thrive.
It was devastating last year to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declare 22 birds, fish and other wildlife on the endangered species list as extinct. Isn’t it our clear duty to future generations to make sure the Florida panther doesn’t meet the same fate?
Bonnie Malloy, of Tallahassee, is an attorney for Earthjustice. A version of this article originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Times. It is syndicated by The Invading Sea, the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network.