Task force navigates Florida panther protection during toll road meeting

Karl Schneider   | Naples Daily News Show Caption Hide Caption Florida panther gets stuck on the w

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Karl Schneider   | Naples Daily News
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Car collisions are the deadliest reported threat for the endangered Florida panther, and the public rallied behind the state animal during a task force meeting Wednesday for the southern section of a proposed statewide toll road system.

Of the 18 recorded panther deaths this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website says 15 were caused by car collisions and one by a train.

The task force met to work on a draft report for its portion of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance. The final report is due to the state in mid-November.  

M-CORES has three task forces, each assigned to its own section of the overall toll road system. The proposed sections of the toll roads are the Suncoast Connector, the Northern Turnpike Connector and the Southwest-Central Connector, which would run from Collier County to Polk County.

A large part of the meeting’s morning discussion revolved around the guiding principles used to protect Florida panthers if M-CORES is built. In a previous meeting, the task force recommended new principles that were then laid out Wednesday.

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Following the eight-hour meeting, members of the public asked the task force not to build the toll road system due to concerns over how it will negatively affect panthers.

“Essentially the toll roads will act as a catalyst to accelerate the transport of humans into south Florida and accelerate the rate of development and the loss of habitat,” wildlife ecologist Randy Kautz said during public comment. “There are issues pertaining to fragmentation, for example: the dispersal zone to allow panthers to get into central Florida would be completely severed.” 

During the meeting, some task force members asked to expand areas of panther protection northward as the Florida Department of Transportation considers where to build the toll road. There are currently no maps showing exactly where the proposed toll road system would be built.

“The Florida panther breeding population is located primarily south of the (Caloosahatchee) river, but in order for the panther to continue to expand its range, it needs to be able to move north,” said Elizabeth Fleming, task force member and senior Florida representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.

The FWC estimates there are only about 120-230 adult Florida panthers with most females found below Lake Okeechobee while there have been a few reports of males up toward Orlando.

“The panther is constrained to less than 5% of its original habitat,” said Gladys Delgadillo, a Naples resident whose environmental policy background has led her to work with different conservation groups in the state. “They’re in a limited area and cannot expand.”

The task force’s current draft report outlines options to acquire land to conserve or use as mitigation, as well as the introduction of wildlife crossings for animals to safely get from one side of the toll road to the other.

Besides vehicle deaths, panthers are fighting and dying because they are competing for habitat, she said after the meeting. Panthers’ limited ability to expand their population can cause difficulties where they are not exchanging genetics like they normally would and that’s happening with bears as well.

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Task force support team member Chris Dailey said the priority list for panther areas is still subject to change.

“It has expanded to include the Fisheating Creek system,” Dailey said. “We thought it was important to add it to this list, but we also anticipate looking further north as well.”

Kautz, through The Nature Conservancy, issued a report Sept. 15 further explaining the loss of habitat directly tied to the southwest-central toll road.

“The toll road will accelerate the predicted loss of panther habitats, increase roadkill mortality, result in increasing fragmentation of remaining panther habitats, and likely jeopardize panther population survival by facilitating the movement of new residents and developments into regions of Southwest Florida that are now rural,” the report says.

Panthers are a wide-ranging species and need connected habitats to thrive, Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation said.

“Historically panthers ranged throughout the southeast United States,” she said. “Due to increased development, throughout time the panthers are now limited to the southwestern tip of Florida. They’ve been extricated from much of their home range and unneeded toll roads will only cause further damage.”

The task force’s idea of adding wildlife crossings would be critical if the roads proceed, she said, but they do not erase the problem of habitat fragmentation.

A secondary effect of the toll roads will be further development of rural lands.

“When you bring new roadways into areas that may not have that type of access, it increases sprawling development and increases the development footprint, which leads to decreased wildlife habitat and additional roads.”

Christina Scaringe, general counsel at Animal Defenders International, asked the task force to consider a no-build option during her public comment.

“Act honestly and responsibly before it is too late,” she said. “We are panthers’ greatest threat with thoughtless, sprawling development.” 

Concerns over the proposed toll road system extend beyond the loss of panther habitat. Water quality and hydrology are a hot topic in Southwest Florida and task force member and chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation Shannon Estenoz ask her fellow members to consider those issues moving forward.

“Nutrient enrichment is a huge challenge in the Kissimmee basin with flows into Lake Okeechobee and into the Caloosahatchee,” she said. “We don’t want to make that problem bigger. This is an environmental enhancement objective that would be nice if M-CORES could contribute to.”

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Wetlands act as an important filtration and recharge system for water, and Delgadillo said the roads will diminish aquifer recharge and add a demand to the water supply.

“This will probably contribute to new pollution runoff from homes and roads making existing water quality problems worse,” she said.

Other concerns brought up by Cornell Consulting last week contested the financial and economic feasibility of M-CORES, suggesting that Floridians would be better served if their tax dollars went to work on projects other than the toll roads.

The task force will meet once more Oct. 19 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. before submitting its final report to the state in November.

“One thing I find ironic is that the state is expending an exorbitant amount of money to restore the Picayune Strand and a large portion of that project is removing roads,” Budd said. “They’re paying to remove roads that clearly impacted water and wildlife, yet here we are spending an exorbitant amount to build new roads through more rural and environmentally sensitive areas.”

Wednesday’s full meeting can be accessed on The Florida Channel’s website.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at kschneider@gannett.com

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