Vern Buchanan Urges Ron DeSantis to Protect the Florida Panther During Heartland Parkway Construction

This week, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to consider protecting the endangered Florida Panther when drafting construction plans for the new Heartland Parkway.

In a letter to DeSantis, Buchanan noted the 140-mile proposed highway from Polk to Collier Counties will run directly into the habitat of the panther. Construction is expected to begin by 2022.

The greatest threat to the endangered animal is being run over by cars. Four panthers already have been killed in collisions so far this year.

Buchanan urged DeSantis to instruct his state Department of Transportation to devise ways to avoid fatal disruptions to the panther’s habitat. One of the best ways to protect the animal would be to create over-passes or under-passes, a type of wildlife corridor, that provide a safe way for the animals to navigate a highway.

“Modernizing our infrastructure to deal with continued population growth is important, but so is ensuring the survival of an endangered species that also happens to be the Florida state animal,” Buchanan said, noting there are fewer than 250 Florida panthers alive today. “We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 23 of the 27 panther deaths last year were caused by vehicle collisions.

Buchanan is a leading advocate in Congress for protecting endangered species. He introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act in 2019 to designate National Wildlife Corridors on federal lands and establish a grant program for states localities and private landowners to support wildlife. Buchanan’s bill would protect many iconic species of Florida wildlife, including the manatee, alligator and Florida panther.

Read the full text of the letter below:

Dear Governor DeSantis,

As you work on drafting construction plans for the new Heartland Parkway, I ask that you consider safeguards to avoid disrupting the habitat of the endangered Florida panther. Specifically, the 140-mile proposed highway is expected to run from Polk County to Collier County, through the heart of some of the last remaining panther habitat.

While Florida’s official state animal once roamed the entire Southeast, there are currently fewer than 250 of these big cats alive today. Tragically, 23 of the 27 panther deaths last year were caused by vehicle collisions, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There have already been a staggering four deaths in just the first two weeks of the new year.

The panther was one of the original 14 mammals named to the federal endangered species list in 1967. Despite this classification, a critical habitat has never been established for the Florida panther even though one is required by the Endangered Species Act. “Without a sufficient protected habitat, there is no viable recovery,” according to the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national non-profit alliance consisting of scientists, law enforcement officers and land managers.

And while several hurdles remain for the survival and full recovery of these beautiful creatures, it is clear that the greatest threats to their survival is the loss of habitat and vehicle collisions. According to the National Wildlife Federation, construction causes habitat loss and highways pose a significant threat to panthers attempting to cross. I was very disturbed to see a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently warn that “This project would have very serious impacts on the Florida panther.” That is why it is important that you take this into consideration and plan accordingly as you construct the state’s largest highway expansion in more than half a century.

Modernizing our infrastructure to deal with continued population growth is important, but so is ensuring the survival of an endangered species that also happens to be the Florida state animal. We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct. One of the best ways to protect the animal would be to create over-passes or under-passes that provide a safe way for the animals to navigate a highway.

That’s why I introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act in Congress to designate National Wildlife Corridors on federal lands and establish a grant program for states, localities and private landowners to support wildlife. My bill would protect many iconic species of Florida wildlife, including the manatee, alligator and Florida panther.

While the panther population has grown since 1967, the species still has progress to make. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2008 recovery plan states that removing protections for panthers would require two viable, self-sustaining populations of at least 240 individuals that have existed for at least twelve years.

Florida panthers have become our iconic symbol for the wilderness and beauty of Florida. We must do everything possible to protect this treasured species. That’s why I’m asking you to instruct the Florida Department of Transportation to devise ways to avoid fatal disruptions to the panther’s habitat.

 

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