Oil Search Threatens Endangered Florida Panther

The Florida panther is one of the most endangered mammals in the eastern United States, and now oil exploration and other development around the Florida Everglades is diminishing their critical habitat.
Vibroseis vehicles in Big Cypress National Preserve

The Florida panther is critically endangered—one of the most endangered mammals in the eastern United States. Its population worldwide is down to an estimated 120 to 230 individuals. Yet oil exploration and other development in and near the Florida Everglades is diminishing critical Florida panther habitat.

Last year, we reported on threats to the Florida panther’s survival.

The Burnett Oil Company, Inc., based in Texas, began exploring for oil within 110-square miles of the Everglades’ Big Cypress National Preserve using 33-ton “vibroseis” vehicles to generate seismic signals to map oil and gas beneath the surface. The effects on Florida panther habitat have been severe.

Soil damage in Big Cypress National Preserve

NRDC asked Quest Ecology to prepare a report on how seismic surveying for oil and gas is affecting the Florida panther. Quest Ecology found that seismic exploration in Big Cypress is damaging “primary zone” habitats, which are habitats essential for the survival of the endangered Florida panther.

Other key findings include:

  • Seismic survey activities are impacting the habitat quality for panthers by fragmenting and degrading natural plant compositions, making the impacted areas less suitable for habitation;
  • Panther dens are not being adequately protected;
  • Seismic survey activities overlap denning season and federal and state agencies have not analyzed the impacts associated with mothers abandoning their dens in response to seismic survey activities;
  • The potential for dispersal of and impacts to the panther’s prey species may reduce the amount of food available to panthers
  • Avoidance of the seismic survey area in Big Cypress by panthers may result in more frequent crossings of roads, putting panthers at increased risk of death or injury by vehicular collision
  • Federal and state agencies have not analyzed the cumulative effects of oil and gas exploration with other development projects taking place in nearby panther habitat, which will no longer be available for use by panthers for retreat and solitude
  • Damage caused by seismic survey activities in panther habitat has not been restored

The report makes several recommendations, including:

  • The National Park Service should not allow any additional seismic activities to take place in Florida panther habitat in the Big Cypress National Preserve
  • The Burnett Oil Company must fully restore the damage it caused to panther habitat in the Big Cypress National Preserve
  • The oil company must compensate for the damage it caused to panther habitat by purchasing Panther Habitat Units from a Habitat Conservation Bank or permanently conserving lands containing Florida panther habitat
  • Federal agencies should reinitiate consultation under the Endangered Species Act

The Florida panther is iconic—and too special to lose.

Florida panthers are central to Florida’s identity and culture. The panther is the state animal. The Florida Legislature has deemed the third Saturday in March “Save the Florida Panther Day.”

Native American tribes also value the Florida panther, which plays a role in religious and cultural traditions. According to Seminole legend, when the Creator, the Grandfather of all things, created the Earth, there were many things he wanted to put there, including birds, animals, and reptiles, but the Creator favored the panther. The Seminole Tribe of Florida has traditional extended family units known as “clans.” Each clan is characterized by a non-human entity with which it shares many traits, such as strength, courage, or endurance—one of which is the Panther Clan. The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida also has a clan named after the panther.

Quest Ecology’s report shows us the harm seismic oil exploration in and around Big Cypress is having on the Florida panther. 

We must protect the panther’s remaining habitats from oil and gas activities and other development before it’s too late.

You can help protect the Florida panther from extinction by taking action here.

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