With sweat dripping down into my eyes, I tried not to blink. This was the moment I waited for, and it could be over in a millisecond: a glimpse of a Florida panther in the wild, deep in the Fakahatchee Strand.
After hours of exploring public lands from Corkscrew to Big Cypress to Babcock, I finally saw one of only 120-230 panthers that roam free in the unbridled precious landscapes that are the crown jewels of the southwest Florida environment. “It looks young,” I remarked before the ghost cat slipped back into the swamp and disappeared.
Just a few miles north, upstream past the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge massive residential and commercial developments are proposed within the Western Everglades containing vital habitat including wetlands, and forming part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Bellmar, part of the Town of Big Cypress in Collier County, is reaching a critical decision point.
What will happen to ‘my’ panther – or the entirety of the panther population for that matter – if it is approved? What will become of the Panther Refuge only one mile away from Bellmar?
With Bellmar’s 8,600+ new residents and all of their cars traversing rural parts of the Western Everglades, how will the panther survive the increasing threat of traffic and new roadways splintering its last remaining core habitat?
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) will soon decide the fate of the panther, as well as the loss of over 140 acres of wetlands within the Camp Keais Strand flowway.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and our partners have held the line for decades, with the first iterations of this project introduced around 2007. The FDEP’s forthcoming 404 program decision is essentially the last major hurdle before Bellmar can begin to turn dirt.
If Bellmar is authorized, it would set a devastating precedent to other large and damaging mines and developments also in FDEP’s queue. Just six large projects being pursued under the weakened state-assumed Clean Water Act Section 404 wetland permitting program would result in nearly 1,000 acres of water being dredged and filled. Wetlands act as kidneys to preserve water quality and provide an ecosystem benefit where they stand.
Further, these same six projects, which includes the Kingston project in eastern Lee County, would destroy over 8,000 acres of the most valuable Florida panther habitat.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 3 panthers would die per year incidental to Bellmar’s traffic impacts and habitat loss, while simultaneously giving their approval for the project. In Lee County, Kingston, is estimated to result in somewhere between 3-23 panthers killed each year.
With the species’ future hanging in the balance, how could they authorize the harm and untimely deaths from being hit by cars and from territorial disputes as their home ranges dwindle? Isn’t the agency aware that there is a mystery disease called feline leukomyelopathy (FLM) that is afflicting an untold number of panthers?
How can the agencies authorize the loss of more panthers than are being added to the population on a yearly basis? By the time those projects are built out, they will have authorized take of more panthers than currently exist.
We can’t afford to lose one, as the panther population is below what is needed for recovery.
The panther is a symbol of old Florida, and of the natural resources that make the Everglades one of the most iconic places on earth. l. Protecting the panther means protecting our wetlands, and our agricultural and ranch lands. Panther habitat are lands we like to recreate in.
Plain and simple: Bellmar jeopardizes the panther, the Western Everglades, our waterways and public lands, and the future of southwest Florida. Decades from now, when paradise is lost, and glimpses of the last big cat east of the Mississippi may be but a memory, we’ll ponder where we went wrong.
These are the decisions where we can make a difference, because anything worth having is worth fighting for. It’s time to say no to Bellmar.
Share your concerns at the upcoming FDEP meeting, held December 7, 2023 from 4 pm-7 pm at Collier Public Library (650 Central Avenue). Find out more at conservancy.org/bellmar. Amber Crooks is the Environmental Policy Manager at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.