The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Brad Cornell, Collier County Audubon Society, (239) 280-6278
Eric Draper, Florida Audubon Society, (850) 222-2473
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113
Laurie Macdonald, Defenders of Wildlife, (727) 823-3888
Nancy Payton, Florida Wildlife Federation, (239) 643-4111

Environmental Groups Call for Expansion of Panther Refuge

Landowners make thousands of acres available


When the U.S. Department of the Interior comes to Orlando this
Thursday as part of the "America's Great Outdoors" tour, environmental
groups will present a request that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
significantly expand the boundaries of the 26,000 acre Florida Panther
National Wildlife Refuge. Expansion of the refuge will expedite the
protection and recovery of the endangered Florida panther and the many
imperiled species which share its Southwest Florida habitat.

Since originally sending a letter to Secretary Salazar in early
August, Collier and Florida Audubon Societies, Florida Wildlife
Federation and Defenders of Wildlife have worked with several large
landowners near the Panther Refuge to confirm the acreage of private
lands that might be made available for public acquisition. Over ten
years of collaboration between the landowners and these conservation
groups have resulted in landmark programs to secure permanent protection
of wetlands and habitat on a huge landscape scale in Southwest Florida.
These programs include the 180,000 acre Rural Land Stewardship Program
in Collier County, and the Florida Panther Protection Program (see, which have thus far protected over
50,000 acres of habitat through landowner incentives.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for public acquisition of valuable
habitat on a landscape level from willing sellers," said Laurie
Macdonald, Florida Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. "It
complements the ongoing but more measured pace of the collaborative
Florida Panther Protection Program we're implementing with these same

Many of these landowners, including Sunniland Family Limited
Partnership, Collier Enterprises, Alico, and McDaniel Ranch in Hendry
County, have now indicated they are willing to sell certain crucial
lands in and around the Big Cypress Area of Critical State Concern and
in the Panther Glades Florida Forever project in southeastern Hendry
County. The extent approaches 40-50,000 acres and represents a
tremendous opportunity for Refuge expansion, which has not been
available previously from willing sellers. The Panther Glades project
forms a connection between Devils' Garden, Half Circle L Ranch, and Save
Our Everglades Florida Forever projects within the Okaloacoochee Slough
State Forest, and the Big Cypress National Preserve.

"The federal government is hard-pressed to name a more vital area to
expedite acquisition of endangered species habitat. The private lands
north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress
National Preserve are essential components of this rare animal's core
range. With barely a hundred known to live in the wild, protection of
the Florida panther's occupied habitat is top priority for the
Federation and our conservation allies," noted Nancy Payton, Southwest
Florida Field Representative for Florida Wildlife Federation.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists have developed very recent
panther habitat modeling which identifies the most crucial portions of
the species' current occupied range in Southwest Florida which require
preservation or restoration. This effort has prioritized eastern Collier
County and southern Hendry County for the most urgent habitat
protection work. With this scientific foundation, Defenders, the
Federation, Collier Audubon and Florida Audubon have proposed expanding
the Panther Refuge through public land acquisition from willing sellers,
all within the high-priority protection area identified by this current

"After the devastation of the Gulf Oil Spill, the people of Florida
and the nation would celebrate such a bold public action to protect one
of the most iconic and ecologically pivotal species in the Southeast,"
remarked Eric Draper, President of Florida Audubon Society.

Possible funding sources the groups have identified are the federal
Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as monies available under the
Endangered Species Act for landowners implementing a Habitat
Conservation Plan, which is underway now for the 180,000 acres of
eastern Collier County. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has
approximately $900 million authorized annually (although appropriated
variably) from oil drilling royalties, a source which adds some
significance to its potential use in expanding the Florida Panther
National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida.