Off-Roading Sought in Panther Habitat

Florida may have a hockey team named after its panther, but efforts to conserve the animal’s habitat have taken some hits in the last few years. The biggest battle is over plans to open 147,000 acres of prime panther habitat to hunting and off-road vehicles like swamp buggies. The area, known as the Addition Lands, is adjacent to Big Cypress National Preserve, about 50 miles west of Fort Lauderdale.

“This area is really a last unspoiled refuge of the panther,” says Matt Schwartz, who heads a small nonprofit called South Florida Wildlands Association, one of the plaintiffs suing the government over the approved change.

The lawsuit, supported by the Sierra Club and others, seeks to block a National Park Service management plan and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion, both of which hold that panther habitat won’t suffer adverse impact. The plan calls for reevaluating the impact on habitat periodically.

But, according to arguments in the case, the government has admitted there “will inevitably be extensive secondary trails for off-road vehicles, which will cause harm to soil, vegetation, hydrology, and—key for Endangered Species Act purposes—wildlife and wildlife habitat.”

On Jan. 30, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell issued a report recommending summary judgment in favor of the government in the case. The issue is now before U.S. District Judge John E. Steele in Fort Myers.

Hunting and off-road enthusiasts have a different view. A recent article in Florida Sportsman magazine carried this warning: “Losing access within Big Cypress would set a troublesome precedent for the future of our sport.”

Environmental groups contend that opening extensive off-road trials will have “much more severe consequences because panthers will no longer be able to escape [to that area] to avoid noise, disturbance and habitat fragmentation” in other areas. The original purpose of Big Cypress preserve was to maintain access into the area while blocking development

The Addition Lands are among the last stronghold of the Florida panther, one of the first species to be added to the Endangered Species List in 1973 after the animal—which has never attacked a human—was nearly wiped out by hunters. The National Wildlife Federation reports that there are less than 100 Florida panthers living in the wild today.

Habitat loss is the greatest threat to the panther, but no known data exists on the impact of periodic travel by off-road vehicles. Environmentalists cite damaging ruts caused by swamp buggies in other areas as evidence of habitat degradation.