Q&A: Eastern Collier HCP

August 29, 2022

What is the HCP?

Development that may have an impact on protected species needs to show compliance with the Endangered Species Act. The developer can choose to do so with a request for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after preparing a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). A permit can only be issued if the Service finds the project will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of the species’ survival and recovery.

In Collier County, a group of property owners applied for a Fish and Wildlife Service permit to authorize impacts to panthers and other imperiled species from the development of 45,000 acres in the eastern part of the county. As part of this application, they prepared the Eastern Collier Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (Eastern Collier HCP).


Why did the Conservancy of Southwest Florida object to the HCP?

The Conservancy has been asking the Eastern Collier HCP to be denied for more than a decade because it ignored the best available science and did not go far enough to protect the Florida panther and other endangered species.

You may not realize that approval of the HCP would have authorized 45,000 acres of development and mining in the last core habitat for the endangered Florida panther, for which only 120-230 remain in the wild.

The Conservancy has advocated that the development proposals move away from essential panther habitat, consistent with expert recommendations, but they did not.

About 20,000 acres of Primary Zone panther habitat would be converted to development and mining if the HCP was approved, corridors would be severed, and roadkill deaths would increase exponentially.

The Conservancy could not support a development proposal that would potentially lead to or result in panther extinction.


Why did the applicants withdraw from the HCP?

The Conservancy believes that the landowners may have withdrawn from the HCP because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have found the proposed development would kill and harm so many panthers that it would endanger the species’ very existence – unless the landowners made major commitments and changes to their developments to address panther-vehicle collisions.

It appears that the agency determined the large number of panther strikes and mortalities from traffic generated by the proposed development would increase the risk of extinction to an unacceptable rate. The landowners have stated that they should not be responsible for panther roadkills on roads outside of their developments, despite the law requiring that the Agency consider all impacts of a development. This would include impacts from roadkills as well as new roadways that support the proposed mines and development.

Thankfully, it appears that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not give them a pass on what could result in hundreds of panther roadkill deaths over the next 50 years. If the HCP and the 45,000 acres of development that it would have authorized went forward, it would have added about 183,000 additional cars on new and existing roads, generating an increase of 800,000 more daily car trips on already-deadly roadways. The development would have also necessitated over 200 miles of new and widened roadways in rural Eastern Collier County, as well as increasing the traffic congestion on Lee County’s Corkscrew Road by almost 24 times the current rate.

Florida panther in its habitat
Florida panther in its habitat
What about the preserve associated with the HCP?

The HCP’s promise of setting aside the 107,000 acres was taken into account by the agency, but apparently was not sufficient to ensure that the HCP development would not be likely to jeopardize the future of the Florida panther and increase the probability of extinction.

What much of the public does not know is that the local land use policies, as well as existing policies at the state and federal level, will require much of this area to be set aside in protection.

For example, when the local county program, the Rural Lands Stewardship Program, was adopted in 2002, the landowners gave up most of their rights to build homes within the wetland flowways, habitat stewardship areas, and water retention areas, in exchange for the opportunity to build towns and villages at a density 20 times higher than was allowed under the baseline rights.

Further, it is estimated that about 87,500 acres of the 107,000-acre preserve area would still need to be set aside into protection to replace panther habitat losses, even if development projects go forward individually.


What will happen next? Aren’t the developments still a threat?

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not permit the HCP, we have been afforded a reprieve for the panther. If the HCP had been approved, it would have authorized the panther harms from the entire 45,000 acres of development and mining in one fell swoop. The HCP permit would have been in effect for the next 50 years. Approval of the HCP would have been the last nail in the coffin of the Florida panther.

The fight is still on, as individual projects are being considered by the state for permitting.

The Conservancy has been alerting the agencies that the developers have been pursuing both the HCP approach, as well as the individual project-by-project permitting pathway for at least 5 years, so we have been aggressively seeking their denial at the local, state, and federal levels.

The landowners know they have a panther roadkill problem but have continued to advance their developments through the current state 404 permitting program – a permitting route that is also deficient and is under challenge by the Conservancy and partners.


What Can I Do?

Join with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to protect our wildlife and important habitats. The cat is out of the bag and the landowners and regulatory agencies need to stop advancing development that could spell extinction for the panther.

Tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to approve the proposed Bellmar development, a large swath of the HCP-proposed development that is only about one mile away from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.


Guest opinion: Florida panthers must be saved from Eastern Collier sprawl