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Panther land stands in way of new mines

Florida Wildlife Federation claims companies will be in violation of the Endangered Species Act if plans go through

By Julio Ochoa - BonitaNews.com - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Several proposed mining projects in eastern Lee County will destroy thousands of acres of panther habitat and the owners should be forced to mitigate, members of the Florida Wildlife Federation said Tuesday.

Leaders of the federation recently sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking the agency to intervene because the mining companies potentially are violating the Endangered Species Act.

At least three proposed large-scale excavation projects along east Corkscrew Road would cause more panthers to die from vehicle collisions and habitat loss, said Laura Hartt, environmental policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.

The increased loss of panther life is a result of the mining companies’ incidental take of the endangered species without a permit, a violation of the Endangered Species Act, Hartt said.

“We’re not trying to stop land use or development,” she said. “We’re not asking for anything that the law doesn’t require.”

Land owners are allowed to risk incidental takes of endangered species as long as they acquire a federal permit and prepare a habitat conservation plan to minimize adverse effects, Hartt said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency that should work with the land owners to acquire a permit and develop a plan, Hartt said.

Paul Souza, acting field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who received the letter from the federation, could not be reached for comment.

In the letter, Hartt noted that the service recently took similar action with a private land owner who was clearing more than 600 acres of land for agricultural purposes.

The recent mining applications by Resource Conservation Holdings, Estero Group LTD and Golfrock LLC, would destroy more than 1,800 acres of panther habitat. Additional threats to panther habitat in Lee County include the recent clearing of 110 acres of South Florida Water Management Land by the Ronto Group and attempts by Six L’s Farms to sell 5,120 acres of panther habitat to Lee County for mining, the federation stated in its letter.

Hartt outlined several steps the mining companies should take in their habitat conservation plan, including the acquisition of panther habitat elsewhere in Lee County, additional wildlife crossings, increased enforcement of speed limits and distribution of information to workers about traveling though panther habitat.

“These are very logical things,” Hartt said. “If you destroy panther habitat, you should supply additional habitat.”

The federation also recommended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work with Lee County officials to amend their comprehensive plan to deal with endangered species concerns.

The land is within the county’s Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area (DR/GR), which is about 100,000 acres in eastern Lee County that is zoned for limited development.

Mining, however, is permitted in the area, but it is not always the best alternative, said Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

“Potentially the whole DR/GR could be mined out,” Payton said. “Lee County needs to do conservation planning for south Lee to determine what areas should be used for mining, what areas for nature and what areas for people.”

The county is in the process of doing just that, said Commissioner Ray Judah.

The board could also consider placing conditions on projects to minimize the impacts of mines on endangered species habitat, Judah said.

“There is an understanding that with a greater likelihood of more mining activities occurring in an area defined as critical species habitat that the board needs to invoke or impose stricter conditions to minimize impacts,” he said.

People who live around the proposed mining projects also are very concerned about their impacts, said Corkscrew resident Kevin Hill.

“It turns Corkscrew Road into Alico Road,” Hill said. “The panthers that we have coming through our backyards now won’t do that anymore and if they do, they will get squashed.”


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