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Endangered Florida Panther’s Fight for Survival Takes a Big Hit

February 11, 2021
By
Bonnie Malloy Senior Attorney

Florida developers are paying staff at the federal agency that’s reviewing the permits they seek in the Florida panther’s territory.

This opinion column originally appeared in the Fort Myers News-Press.

Everybody knows developers have outsized influence on what happens in Florida. But recent revelations by the The News-Press and by investigative reporting outlet The Intercept may take the cake.

It’s a red flag for anyone who cares about preventing our state animal — the endangered Florida panther — from going extinct.

It turns out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted money for staffing costs from a private entity — the Eastern Collier Property Owners — which, as many readers may know, has a permit application the federal agency is currently reviewing. The arrangement was first reported by Jimmy Tobias of the Intercept in a year-long investigative project that reviewed hundreds of public records.

“This type of financial arrangement is troubling and could potentially create the appearance of conflicts of interest, according to government watchdog groups and Endangered Species Act experts,” Tobias writes.

You heard that right — Southwest Florida developers are paying federal government employees — our government employees — at the office that’s reviewing the permits they seek for development in the Florida panther’s last territory on Earth.

“It stinks,” Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, told the Intercept. “The last thing in the world the agency should be doing is giving the public the perception that it has been bought.”

Parenteau is calling for the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the matter. That should be done — and soon.

“It calls into question whether those permit applications are being fairly evaluated,” Ben Wilcox of the ethics watchdog group Integrity Florida told The News-Press.

Only an estimated 120 to 230 adult Florida panthers exist on the planet, and this is the only place they live.

These developers and landowners plan thousands of new homes and businesses in panther territory. Craig Pittman, author of “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther,” wrote in a column for the Florida Phoenix: “They also want new sand and gravel mines, a 54-hole golf course, and a whole bunch of new roads to accommodate an expected influx of 300,000 residents.”

“The property these folks own is so important for the panthers’ future that in 2006 a group of experts on panthers and habitat included it in what they called “the primary zone.” That means its land that should be preserved at all costs or else risk the extinction of Florida’s official state animal,” Pittman reports.

We all know that vehicles are the leading cause of panther deaths. Already in 2021, drivers have killed three Florida panthers. Last year, on average, a Florida panther died on roads about every three weeks.

Amy Bennett Williams of the News-Press reports that public records show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the one to propose the special arrangement. The Intercept reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invoiced Collier Enterprises for at least $292,000 “to fund the agency’s normal operations while it dedicated ‘staff away from those duties to facilitate the development and review’’’ of the development permits.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s employees are supposed to be enforcing the Endangered Species Act, not servicing developers.

Kevin Bell, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Intercept that the financial arrangement between the developers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees is “corrosive” to public service. It’s pretty rare, he said, “that the federal government puts employees performing environmental reviews up for auction.”

If you agree this should be investigated by the U.S Department of the Interior’s Inspector General, please fill out the form below.

Female panther at the Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County.

Female panther at the Picayune Strand State Forest in Collier County.

Tim Donovan / Florida Fish & Wildlife