Why We Must Protect the Florida Panther

The critically endangered Florida panther is battling ongoing threats to its survival.

Mark Conlin/Alamy

Florida’s wildlife, including the critically endangered Florida panther, was one of the toughest holdouts during Hurricane Irma. After all, the panther cannot evacuate and has learned to adapt to such storms. But this species cannot adapt to the constant manmade threats to its survival, including an ever-increasing human population in South Florida, more cars, and habitat destruction from residential and fossil fuel development.

It is estimated that fewer than 200 Florida panthers remain in the single population living in South Florida. Last year, panther deaths tied for the worst year on record, and 34 panthers were killed by vehicle collisions alone. So it is essential to retain this big cat’s endangered status and protect all remaining panther habitat to ensure the continued survival of this iconic species.

And yet development of prime habitat rolls on, including on public lands that should serve as places of refuge for the panther as well as other species. In the Florida Everglades, the fossil fuel industry has targeted the panther’s home in the Big Cypress National Preserve for oil development. The politically powerful Collier family, after whom a county was named, owns the oil beneath the preserve. While oil development has taken place in discrete portions of Big Cypress, developers are targeting new areas for exploration, which will further restrict panther movements and adversely impact habitats.

The Colliers leased their mineral rights to the Texas-based Burnett Oil Company, which has already begun seismic oil exploration in Big Cypress and will occur in four phases, ultimately impacting 230,000 acres, or one-third, of the preserve. The first phase has already begun using 33-ton “vibroseis” vehicles that drive off-road in sensitive wetland areas and panther habitats, causing damage to soils and vegetation. The full extent of the impacts to panther habitat is unknown, and it is unclear how this will affect the small Florida panther population.

When “vibroseis” trucks explore for oil, as they’re doing here in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, it can be harmful to wildlife.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Next door to Big Cypress, in parts of the Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area and other lands that are state- and privately owned, the Mississippi-based Tocala, LLC, wants to conduct oil exploration using explosives to generate seismic signals. These explosives would penetrate underlying aquifers and disrupt Florida panther movements and habitats.

Proposed and existing oil exploration projects in southwest Florida

Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the Florida panther’s endangered status. The best available science on the panther’s recovery found that the federal government should only consider reclassifying the species to a “threatened” status if there are two viable populations of at least 240 adults and sub-adults for at least 12 years, along with other factors related to habitat and panther corridor connections. For delisting, the science calls for three populations of 240 panthers. The newest population estimate of 120 to 230 panthers, if accurate, is not enough to even constitute one viable population.

So, it is clear the Fish and Wildlife Service should retain the highest level of protection for the Florida panther, especially given the threats it faces from vehicles and continual habitat modification and destruction. To remove protections now would betray this iconic species and the students from throughout the state who selected the Florida panther as the state’s mammal in 1982. If we don’t act now to prevent this species from becoming extinct, future generations will never know the Florida panther.

About the Authors

Alison Kelly

Senior Attorney, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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