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Vern Buchanan to U.S. Wildlife Service — protect Florida panther

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Sarasota-area Congressman Vern Buchanan is contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a request: Keep intact vital protections for Florida panthers, the official state animal.

The request comes less than two months after the agency announced it would review whether Florida panthers are still an endangered species. The review, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, comes after a rebound in the panther population has led to growing calls from hunters and ranchers to take the big cats off the endangered species list.

Buchanan said the safeguards should not be weakened because the Florida panther remains one of the most endangered mammals on earth, with fewer than 250 big cats alive today. Most are in Southwest Florida.

“It is essential to maintain current federal protections to prevent one of the world’s rarest cats from becoming extinct,” Buchanan writes in the letter. “Florida panthers have become an iconic symbol for the wilderness and beauty of Florida. Major hurdles remain to the full recovery of these majestic animals.”

The panther was one of the original 14 mammals named to the endangered species list in 1967, but a critical habitat has never been established, even though one is required by the Endangered Species Act. Buchanan pushed the FWS to designate critical habitat for the panther in Florida.

Buchanan noted in his letter that the agency’s review “comes less than a year after 32 panthers were struck and killed by vehicles on Florida roadways — the highest number of panther-involved accidents ever recorded.”

There have also been 21 total panther deaths so far this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Here is the text of Buchanan’s letter:

Greg Sheehan

Acting Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Office of the Assistant Secretary

United States Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Acting Director Sheehan,

I am writing to express my strong concern over reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may weaken protections for Florida panthers under the Endangered Species Act.

While it is heartening to see the Florida panther population increase to more than 200 in recent years, major hurdles remain to the full recovery of these majestic animals. That is why it is essential to maintain current federal protections to prevent one of the world’s rarest cats from becoming extinct.

Alarmingly, your agency’s standard review comes less than a year after 32 panthers were struck and killed by vehicles on Florida roadways — the highest number of panther-involved accidents ever recorded. Such traffic fatalities have risen more than 65 percent since 2012, outpacing the number of documented panther births. These roadkills are in addition to other causes of death, including poaching and disease.

Designated the state animal by Florida’s schoolchildren, the panther was one of the original 14 mammals named to the endangered species list in 1967. Despite this classification, a critical habitat has never been established for the Florida panther even though one is required by the Endangered Species Act. “Without a sufficient protected habitat, there is no viable recovery” for the panther, according to the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national nonprofit alliance consisting of scientists, law enforcement officers, and land managers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2008 recovery plan states that removing protections for panthers would require “two viable, self-sustaining populations of at least 240 individuals” that have existed for at least twelve years. Biologists estimate that the panther has not even begun to approach full recovery.

Florida panthers have become an iconic symbol for the wilderness and beauty of Florida. We must do everything possible to protect this treasured species.

Sincerely,

Vern Buchanan

Member of Congress

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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