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Government Agency Charged With Protecting Endangered Species Takes Payments From Developers

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exists to conserve nature. In Collier County, Florida, money from developers may be interfering with that mission.

A group of Southwest Florida landowners called the Eastern Collier Property Owners (EPCO) has been paying the salaries of staff at the local Fish and Wildlife Service outpost. That same office is reviewing the landowners’  development plans to build in the Florida panther’s last remaining habitat. The financial arrangement casts doubt on the agency’s ability to make a fair decision.

With only 120 to 230 Florida panthers left alive, their survival depends on officials taking the responsibility to steward endangered species seriously. Since last year, Earthjustice has been in court urging the government to do its job and protect the panthers. Read on to learn what you can do to help.

Florida panthers have teetered on the brink of extinction for decades.

  • The big cats have been on the federal endangered species list since 1967.
  • Vehicle collisions are the leading cause of Florida panther deaths. Last year, on average, a road accident killed a panther about every three weeks.
  • The land development in southwest Florida would bring 300,000 new residents — and 225,000 new cars — straight into panther habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is failing in its duty to protect endangered species.

  • Fish and Wildlife Service officials — in part funded by developers — have short-circuited environmental review of development projects.
  • A “habitat conservation plan” proposed by the landowners could be approved soon, paving the way for 45,000 acres worth of development.
  • “It’s pretty rare that the federal government puts employees performing environmental reviews up for auction,” Kevin Bell, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Intercept, an investigative reporting operation. “It isn’t hard to guess how that review will come out when the McMansion lobby is literally paying their salary.”

Earthjustice is standing up for the Florida panther in court.

  • In January 2020, we filed a lawsuit challenging a road-widening project in Collier County and other counties where the panthers live.
  • "We’re going to court because we don’t want this to be the last generation of Floridians to ever see a wild Florida panther,” says Earthjustice attorney Bonnie Malloy. “We need to uphold the national environmental laws that are in place to prevent that.”

How can Earthjustice supporters help?

A Florida panther at White Oak Conservation Center

A Florida panther at White Oak Conservation Center

Frans Lanting / National Geographic