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FWC Commissioner, Others Ask For Legal Protection To 'Take' Panthers While Developing Land

Monica R./Flickr

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner is seeking a permit that would give her and other landowners legal coverage if they were to kill or harass endangered animals while developing thousands of acres in eastern Collier County.

The land includes habitat for the Florida panther. The commission helps oversee the species’ rebound.

This comes as the agency rethinks its role in the panther’s recovery plan. Some environmental organizations worry about the state’s timing.

FWC Commissioner Liesa Priddy and other business landowners are asking for what’s called an “incidental take permit.”

The permit would protect them from civil or criminal penalties under the Endangered Species Act. That involves killing, hunting, shooting or trapping any threatened or endangered species. It also accounts for altering an animal’s natural habitat to the point it would not be able to reproduce or nest there.

That permit comes with something called a Habitat Conservation Plan or HCP. That document lists how development will affect certain species.

Ken Warren is a spokesperson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s the permitting agency for the application.

“You want to see specifically what they're going to do and what their plans are in terms of monitoring and mitigating any potential impacts to the listed species in that area and you want to see exactly what alternatives they might provide if we say, ‘No, that’s not going to work for us,’” he said.

He said FWS is evaluating the latest draft and because of that it’s not publicly available.

Credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Liesa Priddy

But a 2010 draft says landowners want to develop up to 45,000 acres in Collier County inside of a roughly 177,000 acre rectangle.

They also suggest how to compensate for  any impacts.

If the landowners reach their building cap, it would be offset with thousands of acres of agricultural and conservation lands. That would include interconnected blocks of land set aside for panthers.

It’s estimated there were 30 or fewer panthers alive in Florida during the 1960s. A push in the 1990s brought the population back to what is now believed to be around 180.  But, the state is now questioning the federal government’s current recovery plan.

Priddy and the rest of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will soon vote on the state’s role in that plan.

FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley said in August the goal is to figure out which agencies will take the lead on certain recovery efforts.

“You’ve got a population in Southwest Florida that’s actually doing pretty good, but still needs a lot of work and focus and that's where we have staff and expertise and we feel like we've been really focused on that and doing a good job,” he said. “We also need to deliver on a recovery plan beyond those boundaries and we think that's part of the Service's role.”

The Tampa Bay Times recently reported Priddy pushed to have the state rethink its role in the fed’s plan. She was also one of the main authors of the first draft outlining their new position.

The proposed new position shifts the plan’s focus in several ways. It suggests the panther habitat has reached its full capacity in Southwest Florida.

It also wants to focus more on addressing human-panther conflicts and the loss of cattle by ranchers.

WGCU reported last year that a University of Florida study said Commissioner Priddy – who is a rancher – lost five percent of her calves to panthers over a two year period.

Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Jennifer Hecker said the timing of this new position paper is problematic. She worries because the state is questioning the panther recovery plan, its goals may not be considered when the permit is being evaluated.

“We have a current permit application for the intensified use of 45,000 acres of land in eastern Collier County, which is right in the last remaining occupied habitat of the Florida panther so certainly this indirectly could influence or affect the outcome or decision making on that permit,” she said.

FWS spokesperson Ken Warren said the recovery plan is not a guiding document when considering the HCP. He said if the state wildlife commission does approve a new position statement focusing more on landowner rights and controlling the current population, it would not affect how the agency weighs Priddy and the other landowners’ permit.

Commissioner Priddy said her commission’s proposals and the landowners’ application are not related.

In an email she wrote “efforts by others to connect the two appears to be an attempt to cloud the panther policy issue by shifting to insinuations of conflicts of interest which are totally unfounded.”

Priddy declined to do an interview for this story.

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.