Imperiled species conservation on private lands in eastern Collier County
Picture a stretch of iconic Florida habitat. Pines tower over prairie grasses swaying in the wind between clumps of saw palmetto. A red-cockaded woodpecker flits between the trees, while a gopher tortoise digs diligently beneath the earth, and Florida panthers wander through in search of food, water, or a safe place to rear their young.
Then plans for a new building or a residential community are announced – right on that very spot. All that habitat, relied on by so much wildlife, could be simply gone. The project would impact threatened and endangered species, so of course federal agencies and wildlife organizations work to keep it from happening. Lawsuits are filed and fought over the course of years. Sometimes wildlife wins. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Now picture the same scenario playing out hundreds of times across an entire state.
That is what is happening in Florida today, as a growing population triggers even more development. Even when a particularly damaging project is prevented, no sooner can we breathe a sigh of relief than yet another equally dangerous project is announced. A new residential development in a fragile ecosystem here, a road widening through panther habitat there. Trying to stave off damage to the habitats that Florida’s imperiled wildlife most desperately need seems at times like a game of “whack-a-mole” with incredibly high stakes and no end in sight.
But what if there were a better way to go about this? What if, instead of trying to confront every damaging project individually, we could bring everyone together – landowners, residential and commercial developers, wildlife advocates, and conservation experts – and all agree on one plan for an entire landscape? A plan where those who are fighting to keep wildlife and their habitats on the map actually get to influence where development projects go, and where they don’t. Instead of battling each project on its own and risking a loss, we could make certain that the most important habitats are declared “off limits,” protecting them from not one or two but ALL development projects planned for decades to come.
It’s definitely a challenge. But it’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve here in eastern Collier County, Florida.
Breaking down the Collier County HCP
The power to create a plan like this actually comes directly from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The plan – called a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP – is meant to make sure that if development is taking place on private land in an area that could impact protected species, it’s done in a way that would minimize and mitigate the impacts to them.
The only reason we don’t see more HCPs is because they have to be proposed by the people who own the land in question, and developing an HCP is a complex process that can take years to complete. Since an HCP isn’t a requirement, many landowners don’t bother. We’re fortunate that in this area, thanks to a great deal of outreach from conservation organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, landowners have been open to the idea of this plan. And last year, they proposed their first draft of the plan – emphasis on the word draft.
The current version of the Eastern Collier County HCP looks at what to do with 152,000 acres of rural, agricultural and wild lands. That’s an area roughly four times the size of Miami. Right now, the plan would keep about 70% of that area as either conservation or agricultural lands, with residential and commercial development proposed for the other 30%. But the most important part isn’t how much of the land is or isn’t going to be developed – it’s where and how.
Now that the draft plan has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service, our experts are working directly with the landowners, agencies, and other conservationists involved in developing it. We’re identifying the places that absolutely need to be protected, as well as dangerous road segments where panthers and other wildlife will need safe passage. We’re also looking at which areas could be restored, and methods for limiting impacts of development projects on species already struggling to survive. And we’re pointing out areas where development could take place without posing a threat to imperiled species. Where, for instance, would you rather see a new building go up – in prime wildlife habitat, or on old agricultural lands that don’t often hold any real value for imperiled species? These are the kinds of opportunities we can help landowners identify.
If we do this correctly, we can do more than make development in this area less of a threat to our imperiled species. We may even be able to open up new opportunities to help them thrive.
Connecting Habitats for Florida Panthers
The plan is intended to protect 16 different species listed under the ESA, including the Florida scrub jay, Florida bonneted bat, gopher tortoise, sandhill crane and the iconic but highly endangered Florida panther. Already this year we’ve seen records broken for the number of these endangered cats killed on roads that cut right through their habitat. And as their population grows – which I am happy to say it is doing for the time being – this species is only going to need more room to roam. To give them that room, we need to protect the key pieces of land between the areas they currently live in and other protected habitat further north.
The challenge is that most of those key pieces of land are privately owned. Normally, that would mean it could be nearly impossible to protect the pieces we need to. But the HCP is designed to protect habitat on a large scale, with connected corridors that would allow listed species to move and disperse as they need to. So with this plan, we actually have a chance to make sure they are set aside for conservation. Not just protected from one new road or one new building, but all development. To be clear, the current version of the plan doesn’t do that – yet. But we’re working hard to get it there. What better way to give panthers a real shot at expanding their territory than to protect the links and corridors between habitats?
A Work in Progress
The draft plan definitely has room for improvement. We’re especially concerned about the proposed network of roads that would link large developed areas. Right now, there’s no clear plan to address the impact those roads could have on panthers and other species. With road mortality already a leading cause of death for Florida panthers, we need to find a better solution. But with the HCP, we can help landowners and transportation officials find that solution.
As for the other 15 species the plan is meant to help, right now, it doesn’t provide enough information for how it will protect all of them. So as it continues to be developed, we’re glad that we have a seat at the table so that we can be the best possible advocate for all of these species.
With 20 million people already living here, Florida is one of the fastest-developing states in the country. Working on this plan is a great opportunity to make sure new development doesn’t lead to the loss of important habitat, and to set an example for other landowners throughout the southeast. Instead of fighting over every individual project, we can plan where things go. We can get vital pieces of habitat protected and be sure that they will stay that way. It’s going to take some time, but that’s ok – we’re in this for the long haul. We owe it to the Florida panther, and other endangered species in the Sunshine State, to get this one right.
Creating Safe Passage for Panthers
For Florida panthers to survive, the growing population must move north. But in that direction lies a landscape criss-crossed with miles of roads. And as far too many of these endangered panthers have learned over the years, they are no match for a speeding car.