Keeping Florida Panthers Off the Road to Extinction

Earthjustice has filed a federal lawsuit to target the big cats’ leading cause of death – getting hit by vehicles.

Collared panther known as FP 110 and her kitten.
A collared panther known as FP 110 and her kitten. (Image Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

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Here’s proof that human intervention can make the difference for imperiled species: In 1995, only about 30 Florida panthers existed on Earth. After a concerted effort to bolster the breeding population, an estimated 120 to 230 cats roam South Florida today.

This population is vulnerable, and that’s why we are continuing to fight in the courts for Florida panthers.  Earthjustice has filed a federal lawsuit to target the big cats’ leading cause of death – getting hit by vehicles. An endangered Florida panther dies about every two weeks trying to cross roadways in search of mates, food, and new territory. Already in 2020, five panthers have been killed by vehicles.

Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida in the lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We are challenging two concerning road projects in southwest Florida – an 18-mile road widening on State Road 29 in Collier and Hendry Counties and a 3.2-mile road widening on State Road 82 in Collier and Lee Counties. This area is the Florida panthers’ last remaining territory on Earth.

The species’ continued survival depends on proper environmental review and protection, and that has just not happened in these road projects. The Florida DOT, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Corps bypassed legally required reviews which are in place to protect endangered species like Florida panthers. As we point out in our lawsuit:

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued what’s called an “incidental take” authorization that allows an unlimited amount of death and injury to Florida panthers from vehicles.
  • The USFWS’s official biological opinion review didn’t meaningfully analyze the potential that these road-widening projects increase the likelihood of the panthers’ extinction.
  • The USFWS’ review didn’t evaluate the cumulative harm that future development in the area – spurred by new highway construction – would cause to Florida panthers.
  • The USFWS failed to establish a legally required trigger that mandates further review under the Endangered Species Act when a road project proves more deadly to panthers than anticipated.
  • The Florida Department of Transportation made an indefensible decision to exempt the SR 29 project from National Environmental Policy Act review, despite the agency’s conclusion that the road widening is “likely to adversely affect” the Florida panther by destroying key habitat and increasing the potential for fatal motor vehicle collisions.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improperly relied on the USFWS’ inadequate biological opinion when it prepared its environmental assessment for a Clean Water Act dredge and fill permit for the road widening on SR 82.

The National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act are designed for circumstances exactly like this. NEPA requires that “public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences, and take actions that protect, restore, and enhance the environment.”  The Endangered Species Act mandates that all federal agencies ensure their actions aren’t likely to jeopardize a species’ continued existence. Those safeguards have not been part of these two road projects.

It is important to remember that Florida panthers once also ranged in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The species’ last stand is in a small part of South Florida that’s getting crowded with more housing developments, shopping centers, office complexes and new roads.

Unfortunately, the possibility of extinction is very real. That’s why we intend to use the law and do what it takes to keep these magnificent creatures in the wild.

Julie Hauserman is an environmental writer and advocate who lives in Tallahassee, FL. She is a former national commentator on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and The Splendid Table. She has written for many publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, Family Circle, the Florida Phoenix, the Book of the Everglades, the Wild Heart of Florida, and Between Two Rivers. Her latest book, Drawn to the Deep, about National Geographic explorer/cave diver/photographer Wes Skiles, won a 2019 National Outdoors Book Award for biography.

The Florida regional office wields the power of the law to protect our waterways and biodiversity, promote a just and reliable transition to clean energy, and defend communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.