U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the status of the endangered feline, which numbers about 200.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is calling on federal wildlife officials to maintain the highest level of protection for the Florida panther under the Endangered Species Act.
Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, wrote a letter Wednesday to Greg Sheehan, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, expressing “my strong concern over reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may weaken protections for Florida panthers.”
Federal officials currently are reviewing the status of the panther, which is listed as “endangered” with a population estimated at around 200. The federal government recently downgraded the status of another iconic Florida species, the West Indian manatee, lowering it from “endangered” to “threatened.” Buchanan objected to that decision.
Buchanan told Sheehan that “major hurdles remain to the full recovery” of the panther.
“Alarmingly, your agency’s standard review comes less than a year after 32 panthers were struck and killed by vehicles on Florida roadways — the highest number of panther-involved accidents ever recorded,” Buchanan wrote in his letter. “Such traffic fatalities have risen more than 65 percent since 2012, outpacing the number of documented panther births. These roadkills are in addition to other causes of death, including poaching and disease.”
The Congressman’s move comes six months after federal wildlife officials decided to downgrade the protected status of the West Indian manatee, leading a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers led by Buchanan to formally objecting to the decision.
In March, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that manatees will be considered “threatened” instead of “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The change in status could pave the way for state and local officials to roll back manatee protections.
A letter signed by 11 Florida lawmakers — nine Democrats and two Republicans — calls the decision “disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal.”
The Florida panther was one of the original 14 mammals named to the endangered species list in 1967, but a critical habitat for the big cats has never been established, “even though one is required by the Endangered Species Act,” Buchanan noted.
Though the review by the agency occurs every five years, Buchanan said he is concerned the safeguards may be weakened because the agency has said it will consider a study claiming the Florida panther is no different than pumas or mountain lions in western states.
Buchanan was referring to a 2000 study that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come to focus on by geneticist Melanie Culver and three fellow scientists that concluded that all the panthers, pumas and mountain lions in North America are actually a single subspecies. To some, that suggests that Florida panthers are nothing special, genetically.
But Culver, in an interview, said she believes the Florida panther still belongs on the endangered list, just not the way it is listed now. The U.S. Geological Survey scientist concedes that making a change would require a complex solution.
“You’d have to de-list it and then petition it to be listed as another entity,” Culver told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s a legal problem. They’d have to completely lose legal protection to be protected the right way.”
Florida panthers are the Sunshine State’s official state animal, voted in by schoolchildren over such other contenders as the alligator and the mosquito.